Are You Sure You Own Your Domain?

Legally, the registrant of a domain owns it. If you’re listed as your domain’s registrant you do own your domain. However for all practical purposes it’s the person listed as the domain’s admin who has all the control. A quick story will illustrate the point and show the danger of not being listed as your domain’s administrative contact.

First a couple of quick definitions from Keytlaw:

  • Registrant: The person or entity listed here is the “owner” of the domain name.
  • Administrative Contact: The person designated to receive communications from the registrar related to administration of the domain name.

Domain Ownership does not Mean You Control Your Domain

Last week a client of mine called to tell me his site was down. It didn’t take long to determine his web hosting was no longer active. When he originally had his site built everything went through his previous web designer.

I think my client had paid for several years of both domain registration and hosting upfront and sometime last week both came due. Since he no longer has a relationship with his original designer the designer let the hosting lapse and the site was no longer being served.

One of the first things I checked was to see who owned the domain. When I saw my client listed as the registrant I assumed we’d be ok. I thought we would be able to login to the registrar and change the information on the nameservers and have his site hosted again wherever we wanted. The site would be down temporarily, but we’d likely be able to have it up and running again by the end of the day.

Unfortunately while my client is the registrant, the previous designer is listed as the admin of the domain, meaning we had no ability to change anything with the domain and he had it all. Legally my client is the domain owner, but only the admin can change things like a nameserver.

The current registrar would only give out so much information and the only thing left to us was to contact the original designer, which proved more difficult than one would like. He was no longer at the email listed and phone calls resulted only in a conversation with an answering machine.

It took a little while and an email to the registrar’s legal department before we were able to get enough information to start a transfer on the domain. Still the whole thing would hinge on the original designer approving the transfer. All contact on the domain goes to the admin and so without the admin’s cooperation your domain might as well not be yours.

We eventually were able to reach the designer who has since told me he approved the transfer. Unfortunately that didn’t happen until after the domain officially expired, which has caused further problems as some registrars won’t let a transfer go through after the domain has expired.

Right now my client is in the position where he can’t renew a domain he owns because any attempt at renewal can only happen through the admin of the domain for the next 30 or 45 days. It’s possible that in order to get it back we’ll have to wait until the domain is once again open to be registered by anyone.

The small silver lining is we’ve found a better domain for the site and since the pages needed to be rebuilt anyway, we took an old site coded in netfusionobjects (I think I just heard all developers groan) and recoded it with standard html and css.

Assuming we do get the domain in question back and redirect it to the new domain all should be fine in the end. Until that happens my client will be in the position of trying to build back any authority the old domain has acquired.

Being Listed as the Registrant isn’t Enough

It’s not enough that my client is listed as registrant on the domain. Again legally all rights with the domain are his, but that’s no consolation when he won’t be able to use the domain for a few weeks. His recourse is to sue, but that won’t bring the domain back any faster and will likely result in more trouble than it’s worth.

If you filled out the form to register your domain you’re probably listed as the registrant and all the other contacts. It doesn’t hurt to check whois though, if you’re not sure. If you did have someone else register your domain for you then you really should check since it’s the only way to know who’s listed for each of the contacts.

Being the registrant of your domain gives you legal ownership of the domain. It’s not enough. If someone else is listed as the administrative contact they have all the control over what can be done with the domain, rendering your ownership somewhat meaningless. Better to check now and sort it all out than to wait for the day you need that control only to find you don’t have it.

Update: Yesterday morning the transfer finally went through and my client has complete control over his domain. The new domain we found is arguably a better one for picking up search traffic so we’ve redirected the old domain to the new one.

The domain was leading nowhere for about a week, though fortunately I don’t think the search engines visited during the week so there shouldn’t be any long term affects from being down.

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13 comments

  1. Wow, that’s some eye-opening reading.

    It’s one of the reasons that we don’t host client sites on our servers, or register their domains or pick their hosts. We know that if things go south in our relationship, from a business perspective they need to be able to proceed independently of our involvement.

    Plus, it helps to be up front with the clients and let them know we’re anticipating these sorts of contingencies and are looking out for their best business interests.

    • I always have my clients register their own domains. I’ll walk them through the process, but I prefer they register to ensure the domain is in their name as well as all the contact info.

  2. I haven’t really thought of this before. But, now that you mention it I’m the administrative contact for some sites that I’ve worked on for other people. As I’m sure you know often the site owners don’t know or even want to know ANYTHING about the nuts and bolts of running the show – as long as it continues to work.

    Nonetheless, I suppose the thing to do would be to transfer the administration to them even if they don’t think they want it.

    It’s kind of a weak system though. What if the administrator dies? The Owner should be able to get access through an orderly and timely process.

    • Up until last week I didn’t realize how important it was to be the admin contact on your domain. I guess most every time I register I’m listed as all the contacts so it never occurred to me it wasn’t the registrant that receives the relevant emails.

      I usually have my clients forward everything they get from the registrar if they want me to handle it.

      I agree it’s a weak system. It should be set up so the registrant is the one with full control and then the admin is granted a certain amount of control, though not at the exclusion of the registrant.

  3. This article really presents an interesting angle. But I have a question, what should a designer do for a customer that is not knowledgeable about domains and how to configure everything properly?

    I have a few clients, that want me to handle all the “tech” work. How should we handle situations similar to these?

    • I have my clients keep everything in their name and then have them forward me any email they get. My clients are still listed as registrant, admin, etc, but I’ll ask them for the login information so I can manage things for them.

      That way I have access when needed, but the ultimate control still remains with the client.

  4. Bryan, many of our clients fall into that very category. We take them “by the hand” through the process, making recommendations and/or doing the legwork, but having them make the purchase.

    • I like having them make the purchase too. Like I mentioned in a comment above I’m happy to manage the domain and so I need access, but I prefer my clients to have access to their own domain information.

  5. Bryan I think most clients can fill out the form to register their domain. What I’ll do is have a recommendation for where they should register it and I’ll usually walk them through the process a bit.

    For example most every registrar I’ve ever used tries to get you to sign up for things you don’t really need or want. Defaults might be set to sign up for hosting or purchasing your domain longer than you want.

    I’ll email clients and keep them aware of those things and let them know they can always ask me if they have any questions.

    As a last resort I’ll fill out the forms for them, but I’ll make sure to list them as all the contacts and have them forward me the welcome email with all the login details.

  6. I had gotten into a little bit of trouble myself, before I knew much about domain registrars, but nothing serious. It sounds like you walked your client through a great deal of headache here! It’s good you got the domain back … but ironic that you wound up folding it into a new one anyway.

    • Yeah it was a headache, but turned out ok in the end. Believe it or not he eventually asked me to point things back to his original domain once it was back in his control.

      I think the new domain was a better one. It’s an exact match for his company name where the old one left out a word. That word also happens to be a good keyword for him so the new domain should pull more traffic.

      The client is the boss though so it’s back to the old domain.

      On the bright side the code for the site is much cleaner than it was before. I’m much happier working on an all css site as opposed to a netfusionobjects site. And he’s happy since modifications now take less time and cost him less.

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