Domain names do not have owners.  A domain name is licensed for a term of years (up to ten years) by an ICANN approved domain name registrar to a person or entity who applies for and is approved by the registrar to be the domain name’s “registrant.”  The registrant is more like a tenant than an owner because the domain name is only licensed for a specific term and the registrar has ultimate control over the domain name.  The registrant controls the domain name as long as the registrant holds the license from the registrar.

An Ontario, Canada, Superior Court ruled in Inc. v. Inc., that the “owner” of a domain name was a person who was not the registrant of the domain name.  The court said:

“This motion for summary judgment is limited to the ownership of domain names belonging to the business.

The facts are no t in material dispute as regards this issue. Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Dalrymple were involved in establishing the plaintiffs in the business of mold inspection and removal services in the Greater Toronto Area. Mr. Dalrymple says these businesses were corporations that he alone capitalized. Mr. Sullivan characterizes the relationship as a partnership. This conflict need not be resolved for the purposes of this motion. The domain names were purchased by Sullivan, with Dalrymple’s money. They were purchased in Sullivan’s name without Notice to Dalrymple or his consent. When the business relationship fractured, Sullivan retained the web sites, which, when this was challenged, he had purportedly transferred to Mr. Romelus. Administrative proceedings challenging Mr. R omelus’ use of the domain names apparently foundered because Dalrymple could not show bad faith by Romelus. By the time of this motion, the domain names had been transferred by Romelus back to Sullivan. Before me, the issue is a simple matter of property l aw.

On Dalrymple’s theory of the case, the domain names are company property and have been wrongly converted by Sullivan. On Sullivan’s theory, the domain names are partnership property and would be subject to division on a final settling of accounts between the partners. Sullivan would have no right use the domain names pending a final settling of partnership accounts. Sullivan, on his theory, has breached his partnership duties of good faith and loyalty.

Title to the domain names belongs to the corporate plaintiffs. Any claim Mr. Sullivan has on the ‘partnership’ theory concerns beneficial ownership of the plaintiffs, and not each piece of property owned by the plaintiffs.

Finally, Mr. Sullivan’s explanation for his conduct – paragraph 6 of his affidavit – is no explanation at all. Rather, it seems to establish that his decision to use Mr. Dalrymple’s money to buy the domain names in Mr. Sullivan’s own name was not some slip or mistake all along, but rather was deliberate and calculated. This evidence cloaks this routine conflict upon dissolution of a business relationship with a none – too – subtle air of dishonesty.”

The court found that while Mr. Sullivan was involved in a mold business with Mr. Dalrymple, Sullivan used Dalrymple’s money to purchase the domain names.  Dalrymple did not know at the time of purchase that Sullivan was the registrant rather than himself or the business.  When Sullivan left the business he took the domain names with him.  On a motion for summary judgement the court ruled that the plaintiffs were “owners” of the domain names and the defendants were ordered to transfer the domain names to the plaintiffs.