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April 28, 2010

There’s a relatively-new, and highly troubling trend in domain name squatting that can affect you and your business quite negatively: personal domain name squatting. While in the past it was relatively common for domain name squatters to buy up high-profile company names, in recent years it has become more and more common for these same people to buy up domain names that are the full names of important executives and key personnel at large companies. These sites are then promoted so that they show up on the first page of a Google search for the name. Then the company attempts to sell the domain name for a hefty fee, essentially extorting the personnel or their parent business in order to regain control over their online reputation.

Now, it’s important to realize that this very likely violates ICANN’s code of use, specifically section 4b, which states that someone has registered a domain in bad faith if: “(i) circumstances indicating that you have registered or you have acquired the domain name primarily for the purpose of selling, renting, or otherwise transferring the domain name registration to the complainant who is the owner of the trademark or service mark or to a competitor of that complainant, for valuable consideration in excess of your documented out-of-pocket costs…”

The thing is, while this has become a relatively cut and dry issue when it comes to actual trademarks, helping to push back the tide of domain squatters, or at the very least making it easy for business to regain their trademarked domains, in the case of personal names the language is a bit more murky. While it seems apparent that registering a personal name of a high-profile person for the purpose of reselling it to them at a huge profit would violate the principle of this rule, in practice it is much more difficult to show someone was operating in bad faith – after all, thousands of people may have the same name, unlike a registered trademark, which is explicitly protected by statute.

Once someone has access to your full name as a domain name, they can do quite a bit of damage to your personal brand. Google and other search engines give a great deal of weight to domains that are formed entirely of a search phrase when determining the results for that phrase, so even with minimal SEO a domain that is your whole name will likely show up near the top of the search results. At its most benevolent this will mean anyone searching for your name will find a parking page, which reflects poorly on you; at its worst the site could forward to pornographic material, material that reflects poorly on you, or a competitor.

Of course, there’s a very easy way to guard against this sort of squatting: either hire a reputable reputation management company, or go out and register the domains that reflect your personal brand in any commonly-used permutations. With the extremely low cost of domain registration, this is an investment that will pay off for years to come.

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