Getting Your Domain Name & Complying With Legal Issues First, you've got to try to find the best online name for your business. Then it's time to protect your web investment.

Before you can take your business online, you've got todetermine just what your e-business is going to be called. Ifyou're lucky, you can use your existing name. But in manycases, that's not an option. Our tips can help you find adomain name that works for you. Then you'll need to cover yourlegal bases: creating and posting a privacy policy and terms andconditions, dealing with copyrights and warranties, collectingtaxes on online sales and selling internationally. But first thingsfirst . . .

11. Determine if your own business name is available toregister as a domain name. The first step in choosing a name isobviously to try to register the name of your business with a .comat the end. Unfortunately, this isn't as cut-and-dried as itsounds because all the good names are most likely taken. By thetime you read this, the name you want will most likely have beensnatched up by someone else.

If the .com version of your name is gone and you can't buyit from the owner--an option you should at least attempt--try .netor .org. Names like .biz, .info and .us are also available butstill aren't used as widely. If you're still stuck withouta domain at this point, it's time to get creative. Manybusiness owners can get a reasonable facsimile of their name byadding prefixes and suffixes like "e," "i,""cyber," "online," and "the" or usinghyphens.

12. To determine what's available, visit a domain nameregistration site. There are many of them out there. To findthe top choices, google the keywords "domainregistration." Once your results come up and you'veselected a site, the drill is simple: You try a name, and the siteshould tell you if it's available. When you strike out--thatis, when the names you want are taken--the site should providealternative suggestions (if it doesn't, try anotherregistration site). The best sites also offer brainstorming toolsso you can enter keywords and get back possible names that areavailable for registration. From these choices, you can choose thename that best suits you. The charge to register is running about$25 a year when you register your name for three years.

13. Trademark your online address. Once you've founda name that works for you, you'll want to be sure to protectit. The best way to do that by registering it through the U.S. Patent and TrademarkOffice (USPTO). Having trademark rights allows you to protectyour domain name against others who might allege that it infringeson their trademark and try to have it legally taken from you, andalso allows you to enforce your trademark rights against others whouse domain names similar to yours to try to divert yourcustomers.

But the trademark office won't register a domain name thatdoesn't meet the requirements of being a trademark--a domainname by itself is considered merely an address. You can apply forregistration of a trademark after you've used the mark toidentify products sold or services performed "incommerce," which means you've used it for advertisingand/or sale to customers. Trademark registration protects yourrights, giving your company a presumption of first use of the markin association with particular goods or services. For moreinformation, visit the USPTO's site.

14. Activate your domain. No matter what hosting solutionyou select, the process of activating your domain name is the same.The host will assign your domain name an IP (Internet Protocol)address, which consists of four numbers separated by full stops,log the IP number onto the host's primary and secondary DNS(domain name services) servers and broadcast it to the Internet.The DNS servers will have hostnames and their own IP addresses.This information is required to modify your domain name profilekept by your registrar. Your profile can be modified by either youor your host, and you can provide permission for your host toupdate your domain name profile. (Once you've selected a host,most of this maintenance will be done for you, and theirtechnicians will take care of updating the DNS servers so yourdomain name can be resolved through its unique IP address.)

Complying With LegalIssues
Now that your domain name's registered, it's time to getfamiliar with the legal information you need to know to keep youronline business on the right side of the law. The following tipscover some important legal issues and will help keep you out of hotwater.

15. Create a privacy policy. If you collect anyinformation from users of your site, by using cookies or othermethods, the FTC requires you to have a privacy policy. Yourprivacy policy should contain an explanation of how you collectusers' information, how and where the information is stored,how users can delete or change the information, and to whom theinformation is disclosed and for what purposes. Be sure your policyincludes all this information. If you're not sure exactly whatto disclose, you can get great ideas by visiting other sites inyour industry to see what their privacy policies include.

16. Post your "terms and conditions" on yoursite. Having terms and conditions (also known as a useragreement) may be the most important part of a website. A useragreement requires each user to agree to be bound by a contractgoverning his or her use of the site by clicking "Iagree" before being permitted to use the site. Be aware thatsimply posting your legal agreement without forcing the user toclick "I agree" prior to use is unlikely to bind yourusers to the terms. The user must take an active step through whichthey agree to the terms and must not be allowed to proceed to usethe site without such step. A user agreement allows a companyto:

  • dictate how the site may be used (for example, for reading andprinting materials)
  • dictate how the site may not be used (for example, reverseengineering the coding tricks or copying content for illegalpurposes)
  • dictate who may use the site (for example, persons over the ageof 18, U.S. citizens)
  • dictate procedures or policies for the site (for example,return policies, complaint policies, notification of copyrightinfringement policies)
  • dictate your company's waiver of implied legal warranties(for example, implied warranties of noninfringement, fitness forparticular purposes, and so on)
  • dictate the limit of your company's liability for the site,other users postings on your site, sites you link to, and soon
  • dictate jurisdiction for any disputes relating to the site

17. Get your copyrights in order. The footer of your siteshould display a copyright notice for the content of your site. Thenotice should read "(c) [date] [copyright owner name]. Allrights reserved." You should also deposit a copy of the sitewith the U.S. Copyright Office to record ownership of thesite's content, look and feel. Finally, under the DigitalMillennium Copyright Act, depending on the purpose of and yourusers' activities on the site, your company may be eligible toregister for limited liability offered by the act for your site.It's probably best to consult your attorney, who can review theact and determine if you qualify and how you register.

18. Post any warranties you offer. Statements on yoursite about your products and services are express warranties tocustomers. It's important to carefully review all text on yoursite to be sure that what your company promises is true andcorresponds with its other policies and advertising. For example,your site should not promise a 60-day money-back guarantee if yourcontract states only a 30-day warranty. When you review your site,look for statements that are absolute statements, which may be hardto prove or verify if the FTC were to request that you do so.Examples of such statements include: "Our printer works withall software," "Our services are the best" and"We guarantee that our product will always performperfectly." Also be aware that the FTC has specific guidelinesthat should be followed for use of the words "free" and"guarantee" in advertising or on your site.

19. When it comes to taxes, be sure to pay what you owe.Online companies with a physical presence, or nexus, in a state arerequired to collect and report taxes on sales made to customersliving within that same state. For example, if your online businessis based in California, you must collect and report sales taxderived from fellow Californians making purchases on your site.

But things may be changing this fall as 13 states will startencouraging, but not demanding, that online businesses collectsales taxes just as brick-and-mortar businesses are required to do;more states are considering joining the effort. The states areoffering businesses a promise--and an implicit threat. Ifbusinesses register and start collecting taxes this year,they're given a yearlong amnesty from the possibility thatstates may seek back taxes for online purchases.

The 13 states are Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan,Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota,Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Five that will be addedin the next few years are Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah andWyoming. For the most up-to-date information on the topic, consultyour accountant or other tax professional.

20. Comply with international laws when selling overseas.Keep in mind, different laws and customs apply when selling acrossnational boundaries. For example:

  • You're responsible for preparing the customs paperwork whenshipping to a foreign country. If you're not sure how to dothat, your shipping company can explain how.
  • Many foreign countries, especially in Europe, require you toregister as a local business and pay local taxes if you'reselling large quantities of goods to their citizens.
  • Some countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, haverestrictions on the amount of currency their citizens can transferabroad.

For the most current information on all legal issues related toyour online business, be sure to consult an attorney whospecializes in internet businesses.

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