The UK’s decision to leave the EU has many implications. Businesses would be forgiven for missing the changes relating to .eu domain name ownership. Domain names are of course a highly valuable business asset and, now more than ever, integral to the identity of companies and brands. UK businesses need to put plans in place in order to retain ownership of .eu domains after Brexit.
What is changing?
Unlike .com and .uk domains, there are certain conditions attached to ownership of .eu domains: they can only be registered or held by an EU citizen (regardless of address), a resident of an EU member state, or an organisation established in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway.*
UK companies and individuals are currently still eligible to hold .eu domains. However, this will cease to be the case as soon as the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
EURid, the registry manager of .eu domains, has said that it will write to all UK owners in October 2020 inviting them to prove their eligibility to continue holding.eu domains after Brexit by reference to nationality, residency or establishment in an EU member state. Those that fail to do so in time will automatically forfeit their .eu domains on 1 January 2021. Forfeited domains will be held by EURid for one year then released to the open market from 1 January 2022.
* Note that this issue is not limited to .eu domains. Similar criteria apply to some other country code top level domains (ccTLDs) in the EU, for example .fr and .it.
Not all businesses maintain an active online presence under a .eu domain, of course. However, many use .eu domains passively (e.g. to point to a .com website), and many more hold .eu and other ccTLD domains defensively in order to protect their trading and brand names from squatters and infringers. It would be all too easy to overlook these passive and defensive registrations with the potential consequence that after Brexit they fall into the hands of unscrupulous third parties looking to infringe or hold brand owners to ransom.
A few UK owners will remain eligible holders of .eu domains after Brexit, e.g. individuals with dual nationality including an EU member state. Those individuals will need to be ready to prove their entitlement. For the rest, alternative arrangements must be made to ensure that rights are not lost.
As a first step, businesses should review their portfolios now to identify any affected domains, which in addition to .eu domains may include other European ccTLDs. Larger businesses may be able to transfer domains to an EU entity under their control, bearing in mind any tax implications. Smaller businesses without any presence in an EU member state may be able to transfer domains to an eligible employee, although provisions would need to be made in the event that employee leaves the company. Alternatively, there are companies offering proxy ownership and licensing services.
As with all things Brexit, it is advisable to plan and act early. The reassignment of domain names is not always straightforward and it can take time to get the relevant documentation in place. Moving domain names now could avoid a mad dash at the registries in December.
For further information about the changes, please contact the Carpmaels & Ransford Trade Mark team.
Lara Elder, Senior Trade Mark Attorney at Carpmaels & Ransford, is experienced in handling domain name disputes, domain name recovery and other online infringement issues. Lara is also a member of the Cyberspace Team at MARQUES.