Q: what's in a name? - A: branding

Recently, a well-known food firm launched its latest brand on national TV. The firm secured high profile national coverage and...

Recently, a well-known food firm launched its latest brand on national TV. The firm secured high profile national coverage and executives were pleased, writes Antony Gold.

Unfortunately, the next morning when the employee responsible for the company's Web site contacted Nominet, the organisation that operates UK domain name registrations, to register the new brand as a domain name, it had already been done. It soon came to light that a viewer had registered the domain name in a blatant case of "cybersquatting".

The company did eventually win back rights to the domain name, but the case proves that while the Web brings unprecedented benefits to your brand or trade mark, it also houses an army of "brand assassins" with global power.

For about as long as the Web has been around, cybersquatting and linking have been common problems for Web experts. To a large extent legislation now supports companies that feel their domain names have been hijacked.

It is difficult to estimate how many firms are affected but in the past two years, under the Uniform Domain Name Resolution Policy more than 5,000 decisions have been made relating to cybersquatting. If nothing else this proves that companies are prepared to fight for a domain name that they feel should be theirs. More recently we have seen new suffixes come on to the market, such as .info and .biz, and companies have had to go through the whole registering process again.

In today's market, intellectual property and brands are big business and their value often represents a sizeable asset on the balance sheet.

When the Web first emerged as a powerful tool to market to consumers, little or no regard was given to protecting intangible assets such as brands or intellectual property. Surprisingly, many firms are resigned to the fact that they may never have complete control over their intellectual property or brands, but this need not be the case.

A brand is much bigger than a single trade mark or slogan but in the wrong hands the damage that can be done to a company's reputation if the brand or trade mark is abused can wreak havoc to its bottom line.

Linking is less of a problem than if someone piggybacks on your intellectual property by taking a domain name which you should have, or hijacks a company slogan or strapline - these are far more difficult to police.

Many of the issues associated with brand abuse come back to reputation management. In traditional marketplaces companies go out of their way to protect their reputations, register their trade marks and logos and patent their intellectual property. But put them in the online arena and many of them forget the basic principles of reputation management.

It is not difficult to identify instances where another company may be using your company name online - a relatively straightforward search should reveal this. But infringement of intellectual property or trade mark abuse will need a more sophisticated system and some sort of guidance on legal redress.

To help eliminate abuse it should be acknowledged at a senior level that provisions need to be made to help fight the online brand war.

How to reduce online brand abuse
  • Be ready when new suffixes are due. Many companies were caught out and did not register .biz and .info domain names before they were bought by 'cybersquatters'

  • Register the domain names of new product/brand launches as soon as they are decided

  • Avoid leaking the name of new brands and products before you are ready to officially launch

  • Never launch a new product/brand before you have registered the domain names

  • Employ a reliable monitoring service that can give you a complete global picture about your brand online and supply intelligent information about how you can resolve problems

  • Consider registering all trade marks and domain names, slogans, phrases and strap lines

  • Set up a formal legal procedure for addressing brand abuse.

Antony Gold is a partner at law firm Eversheds

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