To do business on the Web, you'll need at least one domain name -- the .com or .net website identifier that has become so familiar (and sometimes annoying) in commercials and print advertising. You may want to use your business name as your domain name, with .com or .net tacked on at the end -- or you might pick a new domain name that you think will draw people to your site.
To help your website, and business, flourish, pick a domain name that:
- is easy for Web users to remember and find
- suggests the nature of your product or service
- serves as a strong trademark so competitors won't be able to use a business name or domain name similar to it, and
- is free of legal conflicts with trademarks belonging to other businesses.
Choosing a Domain Name
The best domain names are often the simple ones -- short, memorable, clever, and easy to spell and pronounce. Nevertheless, you must weigh the sometimes competing concerns of a Web-friendly name with the importance of obtaining trademark protection for the name you choose.
Can You Get Trademark Protection?
Straightforward domain names that describe a business's product or service are more difficult to protect as trademarks than distinctive and clever domain names. Many good domain names -- for instance, coffee.com, drugs.com, and business.com -- are not eligible for much trademark protection because they aren't unique; they identify whole categories of products or services. Likewise, domain names that use geographic identifiers or surnames are less likely to receive trademark protection -- unless your name happens to be Dr. Koop or something equally famous.
Balance Competing Concerns to Find the Best Name
Despite limited trademark protection, ordinary domain names are potentially powerful because of the way people find information on the Internet. For this reason, you should consider carefully whether it will benefit you more to choose a domain name that's easy to find and difficult to protect under trademark law or one that's distinctive and easily protectible as a trademark.
The downside to using a distinctive name created by coining a new word or using an arbitrary term (as in yahoo.com, flooz.com, or amazon.com) is that these names require extensive marketing efforts to attract customers, since the domain names have nothing to do with their underlying products or services.
One good balancing strategy is to choose a domain name that evokes a website's product or service but isn't too ordinary, such as medscape.com, askjeeves.com, or inc.com. Domain names like these are eligible for trademark protection, and customers should be able to easily remember and associate these names with your business.
Another good strategy may be to use one distinctive domain name, such as peets.com, and one generic domain name, such as coffee.com, to represent that same site.
Finding a Name That Hasn't Been Taken
Your toughest task when picking a domain name is likely to be finding a name that's available; millions of names have been snapped up already. For example, if your business name is Flaky Cakes, you may find that FlakyCakes.com already belongs to someone else. In that case, you'll have to use a different domain name (and maybe change your business name) or pursue other options for securing the domain name you want.
The best way to find out whether your business name is available as a domain name is to use the search engine at www.networksolutions.com. Type the name you want, select an extension to the right of the box (which will be .com for most users), and click "Search." You will then get a message telling you whether or not the name is available. If it's unavailable, scroll down to find similar names that are available.
Your domain name is at risk if it legally conflicts with (is the same as or very similar to) any one of the millions of commercial trademarks that already exist. To protect yourself, do a trademark search. For more information on trademark searches, see Nolo's article Make Sure Your Proposed Business Name Is Available. For more information on making sure your domain name won't violate another's trademark, see Nolo's Domain Names and Trademark FAQ.
Registering Your Domain Name
After you've picked a domain name that's legally safe, go online to register your find with a domain name registrar, such as register.com. (If you'd like to do some comparison shopping, a list of approved domain name registries is offered at www.internic.net/alpha.html.) Registration costs $35 for the first year, and $30 for each following year.
In addition to registering your business name as a domain name, you may want to register the names of your products or services, or other related names. For example, if you design and sell gourmet aprons, and your primary domain name is countrystyle.com, you might also want to register aprons.com so that customers who are looking for aprons and enter "aprons" into their browser will land at your site.
It's also a good idea to register common misspellings of your primary domain name and of the names that reflect the nature of your products or services. Keep in mind, however, that it's illegal to register a domain name solely for the purpose of blocking someone with a legitimate right to the domain name from using it.
Applying for Federal Trademark Protection
Once you settle on and register a domain name, you should apply for trademark protection with the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While you don't need to register your trademark with the USPTO to establish your rights to your domain name, doing so strengthens your power to enforce your rights against anyone else who tries to use the name to market similar goods and services, and prevents someone else from registering the same name with the USPTO. This may prevent a lot of headache in the future.
The laws covering website development are complex and confusing. A Legal Guide to Web & Software Development, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo), decodes this complex area of the law thoroughly and in reader-friendly English.