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Staking your claim: Safeguarding your law firm’s Internet interests

In the ABA Journal article “Law Firm Websites That Work,” the author notes that “websites have become the shingles, business cards and phone-book ads of modern lawyering.” Indeed, a solid, functional website has become a necessity for law firms and legal organizations of all shapes and size. But who really owns your Internet presence—including your web domain name, web references and even your website itself?

Hiring a web designer to develop a website for your law firm would lead most people to believe that you actually own the website you paid for—but that may not be the case.  In the article “What Do You Mean I Don’t Own It?” intellectual property attorney Joshua J. Kaufman writes:

“Often Web sites are written and designed by outside companies—independent contractors. By definition these individuals or entities are not employees and, as such, copyright ownership will by default vest with them. Unless an employee of the commissioning party writes the program or designs the Web site within the scope of his or her employment, the commissioning party generally is out of luck.”

Kaufman further writes:

“Under current law, in order for a commissioning party to own a copyright, there must either be a valid work-for-hire agreement or a written assignment of the copyright. … Even if the parties intended ownership of the intellectual property to vest in the commissioning party, if the strict guidelines set out in the act are not followed, the ownership will vest in the creating party— frustrating the intent of the parties.”

The Tech Contracts Handbook: Software Licenses and Technology Services Agreements for Lawyers and Businesspeople by intellectual property lawyer David W. Tollen is a great resource for developing the documentation necessary to protect your ownership interests in your website.  The ABA-published book covers software contracts, information technology services contracts, and combination contracts that include both software and services. It also addresses IT services including website development and provision of Internet access.

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Similarly, domain name ownership (e.g. cannot be taken for granted. Domain names expire and must be periodically renewed. Also, if you’ve outsourced domain name registration to a third party, be certain that the domain name registration is in your law firm’s name and confirm that all contact information is accurate and up to date.
During the infancy of the Internet in 1993,—the domain name for the popular music video channel—was registered by employee and video jockey Adam Curry.  When Curry left the music network in 1994, MTV filed suit against him. More recently, the ABA Journal reported that a website for the Massachusetts courts was briefly shut down after officials apparently failed to renew its domain name. 

Providing further example of the importance of minding your domain name, in the article “Who Owns Your Domain Name?” attorney Alan S. Wernick explores the case of a business that sued to establish ownership rights and damages when its website was replaced by a page directing visitors to another website.

Opportunists abound and in their attempts to strike Internet gold, their tactics often resemble those of claim jumpers. Examples of these exploits populate the Domain Name Shame blog published by law firm Moritt Hock Hamroff & Horowitz, which reviews disputes concerning the rights to use certain domain names.

Constant awareness and ongoing administration of your website are necessary to safeguard your law firm’s Internet interests.

To help, you can find the ownership listing of any website at Network Solutions.  There, you can confirm website expiration dates and who is listed as the website administrative contact.  Information on the registrar is also listed, so you can update the contact information, if necessary.

A simple Google search can help identify problems to resolve. Have you Googled your law firm name lately?  What were the results? Where do the links direct you? Even a routine Internet search offers the opportunity for exploitation, as revealed in the ABA Journal article, “PI Firm Sues Competitor for Hijacking Name in Online Searches.” In that case, a firm was paying Google and other search engines to place a link to its website in the search results when users would search for its competitors’ firms.

Want to learn more? The ABA Legal Technology Resource Center article “FYI: Starting a Website” provides a step-by-step guide to ensuring that your organization builds and maintains the right website the first time.

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