What Is Cybersquatting?
Cybersquatting occurs when someone buys a domain related to someone else’s trademark with the intention of making a profit. For cybersquatting to be present, bad intentions are key—the domain owner must not have a legitimate reason to hold the domain.
Wondering whether you’re a victim of cybersquatting? Keep reading to learn how this form of cyber crime works.
In this article, we'll cover:
How to Tell if it’s Cybersquatting
For something to be considered cybersquatting, there are two conditions that must be met: similarity with a trademark and bad intentions. Let’s look at these requirements more closely.
- The domain must be confusingly similar to a trademark.
In all likelihood, you aren’t thinking about cybersquatting unless you’ve come across a domain that looks an awful lot like one of your trademarks or someone else’s. Identifying this similarity is generally the first step in determining if something is cybersquatting.
- Malicious intent must be present.
Malicious intent (aka bad faith) usually means the cybersquatter is hoping to sell the domain for a large sum, or they’re planning to make money from visitors who end up at the website. If you think someone is cybersquatting—but it turns out they don’t have bad intentions—then it’s not cybersquatting. For example, if someone has a legitimate website set up at a domain that’s similar to your new product’s name, this is not cybersquatting. (But depending on the circumstances, it could be trademark infringement.)
When answering the “is it cybersquatting?” question, it’s important to consider what kind of site lives at the domain. If the website is “under construction,” otherwise unreachable, or is predominantly made up of ads, the likelihood of cybersquatting increases.
What is not cybersquatting?
A domain owner’s lack of bad intentions is a tell-tale sign that something isn’t cybersquatting. There are valid reasons for similar domains to exist online, even domains that are similar to your trademark. Being able to prove malicious intent is essential in a cybersquatting claim.
Registered trademarks may fare better in cybersquatting legal disputes than their unregistered counterparts. Learn how our Trademark Service helps you apply for registration.
Types of Cybersquatting
Cybersquatting comes in several forms, including typosquatting, identity theft, name jacking, and reverse cybersquatting. But remember: no matter the type, it must be accompanied by malicious intent.
Typosquatting happens when someone registers a domain that looks extremely similar to an established domain. For example, “thenewyorktime.com” typosquats a domain of The New York Times by removing the “s.”
Another common form of typosquatting involves changing the top level domain. For example, using .org when the original domain uses .com.
In relation to cybersquatting, identity theft involves the purchase of an expired domain. Rather than manually looking for expired domains, cybersquatters may use software that informs them of expirations.
Once re-activated, these domains often lead to websites that appear to sell real products, but actually steal unsuspecting consumers’ credit card information.
When the name of a person (typically a public figure) is registered as a domain without their consent, this is known as name jacking. The point of name jacking is to collect the traffic of those who are looking for the website of the person in question, and to ultimately spin a profit from that traffic.
Celebrities who were name jacked and took legal action against their cybersquatters include Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, and Tom Cruise.
Reverse cybersquatting is the practice of using intimidation or other bad-faith efforts to take ownership of a domain. It often occurs when one business owns a trademark and another owns a related domain.
While it is perfectly fine and legal to request the sale of a domain, this reality takes a dive when brute force is used to try and facilitate the matter.
Examples of Cybersquatting
Examples of cybersquatting cases are in high supply. Let’s take a look at a few.
- Verizon vs. OnlineNIC: In 2008, phone company Verizon sued OnlineNIC, which had registered 663 domain names that were confusingly similar to various Verizon trademarks. OnlineNIC was found to have registered the domains in bad faith. They were ordered to pay $33.15 million in damages, give up rights to the domains, and transfer the domains to Verizon.
- PETA vs. Doughney: In the early days of the internet, Michael Doughney registered the domain “peta.org,” at which he launched a website dedicated to “People Eating Tasty Animals.” The website riffed on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), in what Doughney claimed was a parody. A lawsuit involving a cybersquatting claim followed. Doughney lost and was ordered to transfer ownership of the domain.
- TikTok: When TikTok realized that variations of their domain (such as “tiktoks.com” and “growtiktok.com”) were registered by Alan Gokoglu and Fotios Tsiouklas, they were quick to act. Rather than filing a traditional lawsuit, TikTok’s parent company filed a complaint in 2020 using the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). After it was found that the domains were registered in bad faith and cybersquatting was present, the Gokoglu and Tsiouklas were ordered to transfer domain ownership to TikTok.
What Are Solutions to Cybersquatting?
If you’re a victim of cybersquatting, there are a few common options available to try and remedy the situation. One option involves negotiating with the cybersquatter directly, while the others leverage cybersquatting-specific rules and laws.
Regardless of which route you want to take, it may be in your best interest to discuss your situation and options with an experienced cyber crime attorney.
Pay the cybersquatter
While this option might feel icky, paying a cybersquatter can sometimes be the fastest and cheapest way to a resolution. If the amount being asked for seems reasonable—for example, if it’s less than what you’d pay in legal fees to resolve the issue—or if you’re able to negotiate, it may make sense to retrieve your domain by meeting the cybersquatter’s monetary demands.
File a cybersquatting lawsuit in federal court
The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act provides a legal framework for trademark owners who believe they are victims of cybersquatting. Via the ACPA, you can file a lawsuit in federal court to try and resolve a case of cybersquatting.
To come out ahead in an ACPA lawsuit, a trademark owner must prove, at a minimum, that:
- The domain is the same as your trademark or has a likelihood of confusion with it
- The trademark is distinctive or famous
- The domain was registered in bad faith with the intent to profit
Using the ACPA to make a cybersquatting claim results in litigation, with all of the time, cost, and complexity that comes along with it. If a trademark owner wins an ACPA case, a court order will likely be issued that transfers them the domain. Monetary damages are sometimes issued, as well.
Submit a complaint using the UDRP
The UDRP provides an arbitration path for victims of cybersquatting. Managed by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), UDRP complaints can be submitted to agencies like WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and often lead to resolutions more quickly and for far less money than using the ACPA’s litigious route.
Similar to lawsuits filed under the ACPA, complainants using UDRP allege that:
- A domain name exists that is the same or confusingly similar to their trademark
- The domain owner doesn’t have a valid interest in the name
- The domain was registered and used in bad faith
For complaints filed using UDRP, the best case scenario is that the domain is canceled or transferred. Monetary damages are not available with this method.
*This is informational commentary, not advice. This information is intended strictly for informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. This information is not intended to create, nor does your receipt, viewing, or use of it constitute, an attorney-client relationship. More information is available in our Terms of Service.