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Who Owns Your Digital Real Estate?

We often read about the importance of investing in digital real estate for your business. In today’s market, the virtual locations of your business are often equally or more important than the physical ones.

But what is digital real estate and why should we invest in it? And is it worth competing for prime position, which can often be a costly exercise? Before you go ahead and invest valuable resources into digital real estate, there are a few things you should know.

What is digital real estate?

The term digital real estate refers to the domain names, social media handles or other markers that stake out a space on the Internet as being yours.

Digital real estate can take many forms, from a free service such as a Twitter account, to highly regulated and sometimes, costly domains. For example, 2014 has seen the first brands sign onto new ‘top-level domain’ contracts with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – so we will start to see more .brand websites. This is the frontier of digital real estate, where applications cost US$185,000 and the registration process has taken years.

What all digital real estate has in common, however, is that it provides an access point or digital front for brands. Just as you wouldn’t set up an accounting firm at the local fruit and veg market, there’s not much point in paying for a domain that doesn’t match your business. Put simply, your digital assets must be relevant to your business.

Can you own digital real estate?

The short answer is no as digital real estate is often just an account held with an organisation– and they control how it can be used.

One standard feature of property in the real world is the ability to sell or transfer it. But under the Twitter Rules, for example, “Attempts to sell, buy, or solicit other forms of payment in exchange for usernames” may result in permanent account suspension.

Often, what you actually have in digital real estate is a licence to use a certain platform. Domain names may seem more permanent, but they are also only allocated as a licence. The .au Domain Administration Ltd (AUDA) rules clearly state, “the registrant holds a licence to use a domain name, for a specified period of time and under certain terms and conditions”. It is clear that a domain name is not capable of legal ownership and may be revoked if those terms and conditions are not met.

Use them or potentially, lose them

Just like a registered trade mark may be removed from the Trade Marks Register for non-use, social media accounts may be terminated for inactivity. The Twitter Rules call it “username squatting” and accounts that go unused for six months may be removed without further notice. Facebook has similar provisions.

This is a risk for businesses that have taken up a range of social media accounts as part of a defensive strategy.

Risks

Since you cannot actually own digital real estate, it’s important to remember that much of the control that you appear to have is actually restricted.

There’s no guarantee, for example, that Twitter, Facebook or any of the current online channels will continue to exist in the future. Even if they do, the trends may change. Who would pay for a great Myspace page today?

Rules or policies could also change in a way that impacts your short and long-term strategies. Facebook frequently changes the type of content that appears in the news feed, and the way it appears. Clearly, this could have an adverse impact upon your business.

Final word

Just like in the real world, there are good reasons to invest and stake out the best spaces on the web for your business – and sometimes that means investing. But it’s important to understand the legal background when it comes to registering and using digital real estate. That way the rug won’t be pulled out from under your business if rules outside of your control change.

Are putting all of your digital eggs in one basket?