Is a Domain Name Intellectual Property?
At its core, a domain name is not intellectual property. As the address where people find you online, domains can be categorized as IP when certain conditions are met, but they do not inherently have intellectual property rights. Keep reading to learn what kind of asset they’re considered and when they’re classified as IP.
In this article, we'll cover:
When Is a Domain Name IP?
In some situations, domain names are classified as intellectual property, the category of assets involving human creativity and intellect. For a domain name to be considered IP, it needs to deviate from its primary role as a location on the internet and also function as a trademark.
But not all domain names can be trademarked. To qualify for registration, a domain must meet the same standards that apply to all other marks: the name needs to be a distinct identifier of the goods/services it promotes. The domain can’t just be a URL—it needs to be something people recognize as part of your brand.
For example, “hotels.com” is a domain name, brand name, and registered trademark. This domain qualifies for IP protections as a trademark because, in part, consumers have grown to know it as a specific source for hotel booking,
Do domain names interact with intellectual property?
Often, yes, domain names interact and intersect with various forms of intellectual property. Common types of IP are trademarks and copyrights, both of which are frequently found on the websites that domains lead to.
For example, the content on a website—from words to videos to infographics—is often protected by copyright. This is true whether or not the creative material is officially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Similarly, business names, logos, and slogans that appear on a website likely receive trademark protection. If they’re unregistered trademarks they’ll have common law rights. If they’re registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), they’ll receive the protections that accompany federal registration.
Want to trademark your domain (or something else)? We’ve got you covered. Learn about our Trademark Service.
Why Domain Names Are Not Intellectual Property
Because a domain name is intangible and does not have a tangible representation, it is not intellectual property. Okay, you’re thinking, but what does that mean? Let us explain.
Domain names are simply specific characters in a specific order. While they take you to a designated place, that location may or may not contain anything fixed or tangible.
Conversely, intellectual property rights intersect with a tangible expression of those rights. A trademark is tangibly expressed when placed on a clothing tag, for example. A copyright when the work is written down. A patent when the invention is built. But a domain name has no such iteration and, as a result, is not IP.
What Kind of Asset Is a Domain?
If a domain name isn’t inherently IP, what is it exactly? Similar to intellectual property, domain names are generally considered intangible assets. They are not physical in nature like manufacturing equipment or retail space, yet they can add value to a business the way a trademark, customer list, or marketing strategy might.
Since “intangible” is the same asset category intellectual property falls under, this may contribute to the reason domains sometimes find themselves incorrectly labeled as IP.
How much value does a domain name add to my business?
Domain names can add considerable value to your business. Just how much depends on numerous factors, including branding, keywords, and memorability.
- Brand relevancy
One way to add value to your domain name is by choosing one that matches the rest of your brand, including your social media handles. That way, your domain acts as a cohesive piece of your larger branding suite, making it easier for people to find you online. Your customers may also begin to see your domain as a “source identifier” for your goods/services, which will give you the option to trademark your domain.
Domains containing relevant keywords are typically more valuable than those that do not, as keywords are a major way people find you online. In fact, domains containing only keywords are some of the most valuable ones out there. For example, Vrbo reportedly purchased the domain “vacationrentals.com” for $35 million. (It redirects to the company’s main domain and website.)
When domains are easily memorized, they hold more value. After all, how useful is a name when no one can remember how to type it out? Keeping domains simple and obvious is often the best way to go. If you’re using keywords and fostering brand relevancy, memorability should fall right into place.
Frequently Asked Questions
What counts as intellectual property?
Intellectual property consists of unique human creations. Trademarks (certain branding materials), copyrights (creative works), patents (novel inventions), and trade secrets (closely held business information) are all types of IP.
Is a website considered intellectual property?
A website in its entirety is not necessarily intellectual property, but many pieces of a website are IP. If a website contains original images, writing, video, graphics, or sound (among other things), these are protected by copyright. Business names, slogans, and logos that appear on a website receive trademark protections (as long as they meet the requirements of a trademark, such as being unique within their industry).
Are domain names protected by copyright?
No. In some cases, domains are protected by trademark rights, but they are never protected by copyright.
What are the requirements for a domain to be registered as a trademark?
For a domain name to be registered as a trademark, it needs to avoid likelihood of confusion with other marks and function as a distinct identifier of the goods/services it promotes. This means that consumers need to see the domain as an extension of the brand, not merely a location on the internet.
What is cybersquatting?
Cybersquatting happens when a domain is registered with the bad-faith intent to profit off of someone else’s trademark. For example, if a domain contains another party’s mark and the website it leads to is full of clickbait, this is likely a case of cybersquatting. Because cybersquatting laws have some overlap with intellectual property rights, this likely adds to the confusion around the “Is a domain name IP?” question.
Who owns the rights to a domain name?
Generally, the owner of a domain name is the person or entity who registered it. This ownership can be transferred if desired. If a domain is not properly maintained, or if the owner violates the terms of the agreement with the registrar, ownership can be canceled.
How do I protect my domain name?
Protecting your domain starts by choosing one that doesn’t infringe on anyone’s trademark. To do this, conduct a clearance search to ensure your desired domain isn’t at risk of a potential legal challenge in the future. Once you have your domain secured with a registrar, remember to renew it as needed. If you set up auto renewal, keep your payment and contact information up to date. Failing to renew is one of the most common reasons for a domain to land in someone else’s hands
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