March 4, 2016
The expansion of social media and domain names creates opportunities for imposters to cash-in off brand names.
The proliferation of domain names, social media platforms and, most recently, site extensions means there are more avenues than ever for brand names to hijacked by individuals intent on exploiting or badmouthing the brand owner.
This trend has made news most recently in the realm of politics, when former presidential candidate Jeb Bush failed to secure JebBush.com, only to see it be acquired and redirected for a time to rival Donald Trump’s website. Similarly, TedCruzforAmerica.com links visitors to a page describing the Canadian immigration process, a not-so-flattering reference to the candidate’s birthplace.
But examples abound in the business world as well, and, political stunts aside, brand hijacking poses a real threat to trademark owners, according to Charlie Abrahams, senior vice president of worldwide sales at the online brand protection firm MarkMonitor. He advises brands to buy up any domain names and secure social media accounts, even if they have no intention of using them.
“If you’re launching a brand … go out and register those domain names anonymously so that people aren’t seeing the name of the brand before it comes out. It’s very important to secure the domain names in major geos like the .com registry and the .co.uk of any new product,” he says.
This is truer today than ever before with the recent development of generic top-level domain (gTLDs) extensions, the final part of a website address. Previously restricted primarily to .com and country sites, Web pages can now be registered under a plethora of new extensions, such as .sucks, .exposed and .wiki.
Abrahams has a particular disdain for the .sucks registry, which he calls “a thinly veiled money-making exercise,” and charges people upward of $2,000 to secure a domain.
It’s not just a domain name that can leech off a brand’s value. Abrahams says it’s also possible that famous brands can be inserted into tags of a site to improve traffic and draw the SEO.
With an infinite number of variations out there, Abrahams acknowledges that companies cannot control them all. So what should brands do when they discover that a website has popped up piggybacking off of their brand? Abrahams offers two hard and fast rules, depending on the situation a brand finds itself in.
If the imposter site is using a brand or trademark improperly for commercial purposes, brand owners can seize the domain via legal means. If an unauthorized domain is using branded material for parody, fan sites or as a platform to complain about a company, there’s little a company can do, however. In those instances, Abrahams advises clients to try come to an agreement with the domain holder through backchannels or just ignore them completely so as not to boost attention or traffic to the sites.
Social media has it its own set of rules, often varying between platforms, but the general principles apply, Abrahams says.