December 18, 2019
This Practice Note, produced in partnership with Ed Boal and Lexis PSL (subscription required), explains the rules relating to the register and transfer of domain names within the .uk country code top-level domain (ccTLD). It covers:
The .uk ccTLD was one of the first ccTLDs to be created following delegation (the point at which a Top Level Domain (TLD) becomes part of the internet) of the .us ccTLD in March 1985.
While ccTLDs are generally derived from the two-letter ‘alpha-2’ codes under the ISO 3166-1 standard, .uk represents a departure from the official ‘GB’ designation (.gb was created after .uk and, although reserved, is no longer in use).
Nominet is the manager, or Network Information Centre, for the .uk ccTLD (under the terms of an ‘exchange of letters’ with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the not-for-profit organisation which oversees the operation of the domain name system) as well as the .cymru and .wales geographic TLDs (under the terms of more formal registry agreements for .cymru and .wales respectively).
Nominet UK was incorporated in May 1996 as a not-for-profit company (limited by guarantee) and as successor to a voluntary ‘naming committee’ which administered domain names within the .uk namespace, coinciding with the inception of the World Wide Web and the commercial internet.
The registration of domain names directly under the .uk ccTLD was not possible until 10 June 2014, when Nominet launched the .uk domain to provide a shorter alternative to second-level domain registrations in the face of increasing competition from a multitude of new gTLDs.
The owners (or Registrants) of domain names that had been registered under the second level of the .uk namespace (such as .co.uk) before 28 October 2013 were granted a right of registration in respect of the corresponding .uk domain name for a period of five years, which expired on 24 June 2019.
The .uk TLD is unrestricted, which means that anyone can register a .uk domain name without any restrictions as to their type of legal entity, geographic location, sector or otherwise.
The .uk ccTLD operates on a first-come-first-served basis. In accordance with rule 4.3 of Nominet’s Rules of Registration (Rules), Nominet may reject any application for a domain name within the .uk ccTLD which has already been registered. Domain names within the .uk ccTLD are not case-sensitive meaning that identical domain names cannot be separately registered in a different case.
Subject to specific restrictions on the registration of domain names under certain second-level domains as identified above and a number of general restrictions as set out in rule 5 of the Rules regarding the number and type of characters, use of hyphens and use of characters which correspond to a second-level domain (for example, attempting to register .nhs at the second or third level of the registrant’s domain name), there is no requirement for a Registrant to have any connection to or registered address within the UK.
Following an independent review of Nominet’s registration policy in 2013 led by Lord Macdonald (then Director of Public Prosecutions), Nominet amended its otherwise open registration policy to provide itself with a discretionary power to suspend and cancel any ‘proscribed’ domain names, being those which appear to ‘indicate, comprise or promote a serious sexual offence’ where ‘there is no legitimate use of the domain name which could be reasonably contemplated’. Condition 6 of Nominet’s terms and conditions of domain name registration (the Nominet Terms and Conditions) provides that, by registering a domain name, a Registrant ‘promises’ that the characters which constitute the domain name are not ‘proscribed’ and that the Registrant will not use the domain name for any unlawful purpose.
An update published by Nominet in November 2018 in respect of the 12-month period to October 2018, showed a decrease in the number of domain names being suspended or blocked under its proscribed names policy (with no suspensions being made), despite a doubling in the number of domain names suspended due to allegations of criminality.
Condition 6.1.3 of the Nominet Terms and Conditions provides that, by registering or using the domain name, the Registrant will not infringe the intellectual property rights (IPRs) (for example, trade marks) of anyone else. Prior to registering a .uk domain name, it is therefore good practice to conduct or commission searches to check that the domain name does not infringe the IPRs of any third parties.
Domain names within the .uk namespace may be registered directly through Nominet or through an organisation which has entered into an agreement with Nominet to manage domain name registrations within that namespace (Registrars). Registrars may optionally apply to become accredited Registrars if they meet certain additional requirements in relation to business continuity, data quality and insurance. The Nominet Terms and Conditions, which incorporate the Nominet DRS policy, apply to all domain names administered by Nominet, and its accredited registrars are required to make their customers aware of such terms prior to registration.
The registration process itself is no more difficult than that for making any other kind of online purchase. Fees for registration vary between Registrars, promoting competition in the marketplace. However, registration fees will generally be higher for non-accredited Registrars than accredited Registrars, who receive a considerable discount on the fees charged by Nominet.
In accordance with condition 11.5 of the Nominet Terms and Conditions, where the Registrant is a ‘consumer’ for the purposes of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, they will have the right to cancel their registration under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, SI 2013/3134.
Registrations must be for a minimum period of one year and not more than ten years. There is no limit on the number of times that a domain name can be renewed such that a Registrant can hold the right to use a domain name indefinitely. Domain names that are registered directly with Nominet can only be made for fixed terms of two years (see condition 11.1 of the Nominet Terms and Conditions).
Abusive registrations of domain names can be challenged under the Nominet DRS.
Property rights in domain names
Condition 7.1 of the Nominet Terms and Conditions provides that a domain name is not an item of property and has no ‘owner’ per se. As such, when a domain name is registered within the .uk namespace, the Registrant acquires an exclusive right to use that domain name for the duration of their registration and subject to the payment of renewal fees.
Condition 11.4 of the Nominet Terms and Conditions allows a Registrant to transfer a domain name in accordance with Nominet’s published transfer process. This might be done, for instance, following the sale of a business where the right to use an associated domain name is agreed to be transferred to the purchasing party as a result of the resolution of a dispute outside of Nominet’s DRS policy or as a standalone transfer between two parties.
In such instances, the transferor and transferee may choose to enter into a domain name transfer agreement prescribing the terms of the transfer.
Where a domain name has been registered directly with Nominet, the Registrant will need to log into their online services account before selecting which domain name they wish to transfer, providing the email address of the transferee, choosing who will pay the transfer fee and ticking a declaration to confirm that they are the current Registrant or that they have been authorised by the Registrant to transfer the domain name. The process for other Registrars may vary slightly.
In respect of domain names that have been registered within one of the restricted second-level domains (such as .ltd.uk or .plc.uk), the transfer process will involve an intermediate step whereby Nominet manually confirms that the transferee meets the eligibility requirements for registration.
Paragraph 26 of the Nominet DRS policy provides that the respondent of any claim may not transfer the domain name in dispute while proceedings are ongoing and for a period of ten days after their conclusion, unless such transfer is made to the complainant as a result of any settlement that has been agreed by Nominet, or while court or arbitration proceedings are ongoing. Respondents are also prohibited from transferring the hosting of any domain name in dispute between Registrars while proceedings are ongoing and for a period of ten days after their conclusion.
The transfer of a domain name, whether by an existing Registrant or following a decision by Nominet or a court order, will only change the status of the legal Registrant of the domain name, not the identity of the Registrar.
In most cases (except perhaps in the case of intra-group transfers), the parties are likely to want to change the Registrar as part of the process, for example, to make it easier to manage renewals of a portfolio of domain names. In the case of a change of Registrar, the transfer will not be completed until the new Registrar accepts the request for transfer. The transferee (or new Registrant) will usually have to initiate the Registrar transfer request process themselves, either at the same time or following the transfer of the domain name by the existing Registrant (and pay an additional transfer fee).
When Nominet assigns a Registrar to a domain name it gives the domain an Internet Provider Security or IPS TAG. If the new Registrant then wishes to move the domain name to a new Registrar it will need to apply to change the IPS TAG to that of the new Registrar. The new Registrar will be able to provide the new registrant with its IPS TAG. If an existing Registrar is not able to arrange for the domain to be moved to a new Registrar, the new Registrant is able to move the domain name themselves using their Nominet Online Services account (if the new Registrar does not accept the transfer request within five days from the date of a request through the account, then the domain name will remain registered with the current Registrar). The domain may also need to be unlocked by the current Registrar and the new registrant may need the current Registrar to provide them with a unique authorisation code (also called an Extensible Provisioning Protocol or EPP code or security key).
There are no express restrictions preventing a Registrant from licensing, or rather granting a sub-licence to, its rights in a domain name within the .uk namespace to a third party. However, Nominet will only recognise the Registrant as the legal holder of the right to use any domain name and the Registrant will continue to be responsible for complying with the Conditions, Rules and other policies mandated by Nominet.
On 22 May 2018, before the General Data Protection Regulation came into force on 25 May 2018, Nominet took a more conservative approach than a number of its peers and amended its policy in relation to the WHOIS database of domain names within the .uk namespace to redact the personal data of all Registrants other than those who consented to their details being made public.
Law enforcement agencies are permitted to access all details contained in the database through a searchable WHOIS directory service free of charge, while ‘interested parties’ (such as private organisations seeking to defend or enforce their IPRs or their legal advisers) can submit requests to Nominet for access, with Nominet aiming to respond within one working day.
If you’d like to discuss the registration and transfer of domain names within the .uk namespace please contact us.