Domains drop everyday. A few are great, but the vast majority are trash that weren’t worth the $10 registration fee in the first place. Most bleed their way back into the domain pool, but all web properties seem to have a chance at a second life through registrar auction services. Most registrars either have them or funnel their expired domains through auction sites like NameJet and Snapnames. While I do check-in with both from time-to-time, Go Daddy is the one I keep an eye on most frequently. The purveyor of racy commercials gives you the ability to sift through expiring domain lists by several variables, but I find the auction price column most helpful. It gives you an idea of what names are currently in demand and potentially worth giving a second look. Sometimes, I’m looking for a great name for a potential business I’m considering launching in the future while other times I’m researching for a client or simply keeping my eyes peeled for a great undervalued name that could be flipped for a tidy sum of cash at a future date. A couple weeks ago, I had a foreign language learning domain I registered a couple years ago for $82 sell for $2000. Try getting that kind of return on investment in the stock market.
I’m not here to discuss the domain drop catching business today (although its a fascinating area that probably deserves an article in and of itself someday). I’m here to discuss resurrecting dead sites. Some websites that get dropped still have value. They have links pointing back to them, or for one reason or another they are still traffic hounds even six feet under. Those sites are often scooped up by domaineers, hoping to park a PPC page on the domain and harvest some money from that errant traffic. Click through traffic is down considerably from its lucrative heyday, but some big money is still being made in this space. Publically traded company Marchex, or it seems their spinoff Archeo, is heavy invested in domaining. While parked pages are the most popular solution for monetizing these dead domains, I have also heard of people rebuilding sites through the archived content housed at Archive.org to match the previous site’s content. Basically, you are resurrecting it from the dead so the casual observer wouldn’t even know it ever left the Internet. I think the general idea here is to place some ad blocks on the pages and make money like it was your site. In thinking over this strategy today, I started to wonder about the copyright of this old, left-for-dead content on the expired site. Does the copyright suddenly vanish since the site owner threw away the domain, or does it persist somewhere in the cybervacuum?
Copyright is always a hot button topic on the web. I’d say 95% of bloggers and small business owners know next to nothing about copyright and intellectual property law. All the time, I run across sites copying and pasting huge chunks of copyrighted articles onto their site and the most egregious has to be the image copyright abuse. People find a neat image on Google images and just upload it to their site as if it was their own. No citing their source. No asking permission for its use. All these people are just a lawsuit waiting to happen. In the upcoming weeks, I’m going to tackle the topic of creative commons, stock image services and how to use images correctly (read legally) on your website. This is an important topic since if you are found to be willfully infringing, it can set you back $150,000 per instance. Ouch!
So I think is fair to say that when this expired website was live, the site owner had a copyright on their words, images and other works they created. Regardless of that copyright symbol residing in the site footer, that content is under copyright. For those who disagree, here is a great list of copyright myths explained. So if you swiped that content when the site was live and put it on your site, you are in effect whacking the hornet’s nest. You could escape unscathed, but sooner or later that sting is going to bite you hard. Hopefully, everyone is walking the straight and narrow on this front. What about an expired site? Many are filled with fantastic content that just gets swallowed up into cyberspace as soon as that registrar drops the domain into oblivion. Regardless, that copyright persists.
Just because the site was abandoned doesn’t mean the copyright attached to the content suddenly ceases to exist. Site owners frequently move domains so those articles could now have a new home on the web. Maybe the site owner wanted to take his information offline and reformat it in the form of a book or other form of literature. Another possibility is the site is dead as we know it, but the site owner has a backup of all that valuable information that he’s planning to relaunch on a new site in the coming days, months or years. I’ve got one of those myself resting in the wings. Even if none of that were true, the writer still retains copyright over his previously published works.
That’s not to say you can’t contact the original owner and ask to buy the content so you can legally resurrect the site. Obviously, if the site owner let the domain lapse, he most likely isn’t actively managing the site and doesn’t see the value in the content that has built up over the years. A fair offer will probably be met with gracious acceptance. It largely depends on the owner. Finding the owner’s contact information after the fact can be tricky exercise. Domain Tools has some resources for mining historical contact information of previous owners. If all else fails, you could create new content for the site based on the existing page structure so you can take advantage of any links still pointing to the domain.
So Archive.org is a great resource if you want to see what Yahoo looked like in 1996 (you’ve come a long way baby!) or you’re trying to recover a lost article on your site. Just don’t use it as a tool for copyright infringement. Just because you cleverly snapped up an expired domain, doesn’t grant you rights to its expired web content. Do it the right way and try to buy the content from the original owner or park a page. Having a team of lawyers sitting on your doorstep ready to bleed you like a turnip can really put a damper on your day.
Image: Wilm Ihlenfeld via Shutterstock