When it comes to Australian domain names, a common question we’re asked is, “Do I need an ABN to register a domain name?”

Also, we know when it comes to buying websites and domain names, it can be a bit confusing whether to own it against a business name or your own personal name or an ABN

Today, we want to clear that up, which is why we’ve brought on Jeanette Jifkins from Onyx Legal, one of Australia’s leading lawyers for digital and online businesses.

In fact, Jeanette has been training with us here at the eBusiness Institute for over a decade, so she has some really practical and personal knowledge of buying and selling websites for passive income.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO BELOW to hear what you need to know about the legal side of buying websites, ABNs, and domain names.

Do I need an ABN to own, operate or buy a website?

Matt Raad: Today I’m here with Jeanette Jifkins from Onyx Legal. She is one of Australia’s premier lawyers in buying and selling websites and digital assets. Welcome, Jeanette. Thank you for coming on.

Jeanette Jifkins: Thanks very much, Matt. Lovely to be here.

Today’s topic is really important, and we get asked this question a lot by our beginners who are coming into this new space, and the question is, “do I need an ABN (or a business name) to operate a website, or to buy and sell websites?”

Jeanette Jifkins: An ABN and a business name are actually two different things. An ABN is a business registration number. And a business name is basically just a name.

If you want to register a business name, you do need to have an ABN. But regardless of that, you don’t have to have either of those things to buy a domain name. Particularly if the domain is a “.com”.

Do I need an ABN to purchase a domain name in Australia?

Matt: And being in Australia, it’s immaterial, isn’t it? When using a “.com”, you can purchase in your own name.

Jeanette: Yes. But if it’s a “.com.au” (or it’s got a particular ending like that) , there may be other obligations that apply.

Here in Australia it’s a bit harder to get a “.com.au” unless you have an ABN. There are conditions around “.org” etc. so you just have to comply with those conditions.

But if you’re just getting started, and you’re purchasing a “.com”, then you don’t need anything special.

Do I need multiple ABNs to purchase multiple domain names?

Matt Raad and Jeanette Jifkins speak about buying websites, domain names & ABNs
Matt Raad and Jeanette Jifkins speak about buying websites, domain names & ABNs

Matt: Great, but if you do want to go the Australian “.com.au”, then you need an ABN. Do I need separate ABN’s for multiple domains?

Jeanette: Oh gosh, no!

Matt: You can have one ABN and have multiple domain names sitting underneath that.

Jeanette: Absolutely.

Matt: And they don’t have to be related or anything like that?

Jeanette: No. And actually, if you do want to go down the path of registering a business name, then you can use the business name to identify the registrant of all the domain names, with your ABN, instead of your own personal name.

So, it’s just a privacy thing instead of paying for privacy, you can do it that way. But you don’t have to have it by any means.

Matt: Because registering a business name in Australia, was it around $36 a year?

Jeanette: Yes, perhaps around $85 for three years.

Matt: So there you go. $85 dollars to register a business NAME in Australia – I think that’s worth it especially if you are going to be buying websites or building websites. Awesome, thanks for that Jeanette.

Jeanette Jifkins regularly speaks at the E-Business Institute’s Digital marketing workshops & training boot-camps about the legal aspects of buying websites and all things to do with website legals.

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What does ABN mean?

Matt: So, as you know, Jeanette, this is a vital topic. You speak at all our events, including our Champions boot camps. And the issue of ABN is one of the questions that constantly come up.

So, let’s start with the scenario – someone’s looking to buy a website on Flippa, and they notice it’s a .com.au. Where are we at when it comes to that domain name?

Jeanette: Well, to start with, let’s do a little bit of background for our international audience.

An ABN means an Australian Business Number. And you register it through the Australian Business Register.

Back to basics, abr.gov.au is where people register an ABN.

Depending on what type of domain name you want to buy will make a difference in whether you need an ABN.

If you’re looking for a .com (or any ending that doesn’t involve a .au), you don’t need an ABN.

What structure should I use when I start buying and building websites?

Matt: Just to be clear, because we’ve got a lot of beginners who are reading this, so it’s really important.

For our beginner Australians looking at buying websites, you’re good to go if you are purchasing a .com. You can do that under your personal name, sole trader, as a business, in a trust, whichever way you want. There are no restrictions there.

Jeanette: That’s right.

Matt: When you’re starting, it’s probably the most convenient to buy under your personal name?

Jeanette: Yes, probably, because you’re just learning. You don’t know yet whether it will be a big deal or not.

Once you have an inkling, then you can decide what structure you want to put it into. But when you’re just starting out and want to have a go, using your personal name is fine.

That’s the other thing about not getting a .au. If you’re going for a .com or something like that, you can even put privacy settings, so you don’t have to have your personal details there.

Matt: That’s fantastic. And it’s great that you can give legal advice here, Jeanette.

For our readers who are just starting online, it’s important to say that it’s probably safe and easy to just get started with a basic .com domain name. Anyone can do it.

Jeanette: Absolutely.

What do I need to register a .com.au domain?

Matt: Now, let’s move to the fun bit. That is today’s topic.

What happens next if it’s a .com.au? What do we need?

Jeanette: So, as of March 2022, we now have .au by itself. You don’t need to go for domains of .com.au or .net.au or .org, etc. You can just go for .au.

But to do that, you must demonstrate a connection to Australia:

  1. One of the ways to do that is to have your ABN.
  2. Another way to do that is to have an Australian registered trademark.

So if you’ve got one of those two things, you can apply for a .com.au or .net.au.

Other rules apply to what’s considered the non-business space, like the .org and .asn domains with the .au on the end. If you are in those spaces, you can apply without an ABN because it’s a community organization. But you still have to demonstrate that connection to Australia.

So how you demonstrate it is usually with an ABN; it’s just the quickest and simplest way to do it. If you can demonstrate an Australian audience for an existing community organization, you can probably get it through.

But, there’s no other way to do it other than your trademark and your ABN if you’re looking for a .com.au or .net.au.

Should I buy a .com.au website from Flippa?

Matt: I wanted Jeanette to mention this point because many of our readers are on Flippa looking to buy websites. And for some of these sites for sale, people are emailing us saying, “Hey, Matt, we’ve just seen a website with .com.au domain. Should we be buying this?”

Obviously, if you’re an overseas buyer (you’re not based here in Australia), that’s a barrier. The bottom line is that .coms are really simple and straightforward. If you’re an overseas person, buying an Australian website with a .com.au starts to get tricky.

But, if you’re in that position, I would suggest you reach out to Jeanette and chat with her about it. As you just heard, you can get around it if you’ve got an Australian trademark. So, there are ways to do it. But in essence, it’s not a simple thing.

Why .com.au websites on Flippa are nice bargains to look for

Matt: Another thing I want to point out is you can get bargains when you’re buying these Australian websites on Flippa. That’s why, if you’re Australian, I highly recommend you look out for Australian websites that come up for sale on Flippa.

The buying market of those websites is dramatically reduced now because overseas people can’t buy them easily. It means the multiples come down, and we can typically get them a lot cheaper. So that’s a really good thing.

So, let’s now cater for our Australian audience here. This is where the bargains are, but you still need to understand the deal with buying a .com.au and having an ABN to go with it.

What do I need to buy a .com.au website from Flippa?

Matt: What are the rules around that for an Australian to buy those websites?

Jeanette: Well, it’s reasonably straightforward. Suppose you’ve got an ABN in the application process. In that case, you just put in your ABN, and it usually gets verified by your registrar before the point of purchase. And then you can go through with it.

There is an explanation point. Generally, you say your business name is “Website Builders PTY LTD”, or you just have a business name, “Website Builders”. But suppose you want to register a website that is much more specific, like “eBusiness Institute” or something like that. In that case, you have to put a little explanation into your application to say, “Yes, this is the kind of business we’re in.”

And it does appear that trading websites is a legitimate business.

Matt: As it should be.

Jeanette: Yes, and plenty of people manage to register domains because that’s the business they’re in, buying and selling domain names. And that’s how they demonstrate a connection.

Buying domain names is first-come-first-served. So, the only way to get higher interest in a domain name is to have a registered trademark.

Other than that, it’s the first person who wants to buy it is the one who can get it. And that is why domain name traders (and everybody) can accumulate domain names.

Do I need multiple ABNs to purchase multiple .com.au domains?

Matt: Can I clarify the next important question. This is something you have been asked a lot by our students, particularly students who are buying up lots of websites.

Do you need multiple ABNs to buy up multiple .com.au domains?

Jeanette: Goodness no!

This is the beauty of registering an ABN. Regardless of the entity you register it with (company, sole trader or a partnership etc.), your ABN allows you to register a whole bunch of different trading names within the one ABN.

And when you register the ABN, you say you are in website development, website investing, etc.

You nominate the category, and this is the ATO category. These categories were expanded in the second half of last year. Now you can nominate up to four categories (or subcategories) in whatever heading you’ve got.

As long as it somehow has a connection to those categories, you can use the one ABN and register as many domain names as you like.

Matt: That’s great information for our students building their digital agencies. They can create an ABN for their digital agency, and under that, they can register as many .com. au’s as they want with the one ABN.

Jeanette: That’s right.

Matt: So, there you go. We know everyone always asks Jeanette, “Do I need to set up multiple ABNs?”

Should I do Due Diligence when buying domain names?

Matt: The other question you started to touch on (and I know you and I talked about this) is doing due diligence on the domain name.

Before you go ahead and register a .com.au, what are some of the key considerations that you like to help your clients with from a legal point of view?

Jeanette: Do a simple browser search on the domain name you’re looking for.

Firstly, this helps you to see what similar competitors are out there. So, if there is another domain name out there that has a hyphen in it or has the official or something else like that, you’ve got to consider what kind of competition is potentially out there.

But also, it’s worth checking to see if there’s a registered trademark.

The risk of not checking for Registered Trademarks

Jeanette: Some years ago, we had a client who was using a brand domain name with a .com.au. Unfortunately, the American company came into the Australian market, and straight away, they registered the trademark.

Trademarks take between 6-12 months to go through. Once they had that trademark registered, they went after our client and said, “Hey, you’re infringing our trademark.” So, you don’t want to be in that position.

What you need to do is look at:

  1. Is it a unique domain name?
  2. If it’s a unique name, does it have a registered trademark?

We’ve also seen that in the past, where we had a client paying $25,000 for a website. It was an e-commerce business, and the domain name was a registered trademark. The seller didn’t own the trademark; someone else did. So, that’s a risk, and you don’t want to be in the position of that risk.

For IP, australia.gov.au is where you search for an Australian trademark. It’s very easy. Just put in your search (the generic terms) for the trademark. For example, if it’s eBusiness Institute, you would type in eBusiness Institute or just e-business and see what comes up.

And check and see if there are any other similar domain names. You don’t want to buy an e-commerce business, for example, and not have the trademark because that’s a real risk. You’d potentially have to rebrand and change everything.

We were fortunate for the client we worked with where the American company came in; their business was not centred around their website. Their website was really just a brochure site so that you had somewhere to find them. Their income was in their database.

Matt: So, it’s a pretty easy resolution in that instance. Just change the domain name (rebrand), which is not as dramatic as it sounds.

What if I have a similar sounding .com domain?

Matt: What I want to reiterate for our readers who are just starting out; I know this sounds a bit scary, but it’s actually not. Please remember what we said at the beginning of this interview .coms are absolutely fine and totally different.

You can have very similar sounding .coms. We do, and everyone else does. The .coms are always similar. Where it gets tricky is here in Australia with .com. au’s.

If you’re worried about it and looking at buying a website, have a chat with Jeanette about it. If the domain name is a .com.au, you need to do a little bit of due diligence.

What happens if other businesses are using similar domain names?

Matt: So, Jeanette, is the trademarked term the primary concern you would look for on behalf of your client here in Australia? Other than that, you’re pretty okay?

Jeanette: Well, no. Not just the trademark term, but is there another business out there using it?

For example, say you’re building or buying local business websites. There might be somebody operating in the Sydney area using a very similar domain name (or has registered a similar domain name) but not actually using it yet. It might just have advertising on it etc.

If you are going to set up a domain name in a different state, say in Western Australia. You’ve got a business you’re going to operate in Perth. Be aware of where the market will go, depending on the domain name.

And make sure you use your SEO to differentiate.

Should I consider purchasing a competing .au domain name?

Jeanette: Suppose there’s another domain name for someone in a different state (i.e. a similar business) that is not being used. In that case, there could be the possibility of purchasing that. Determining whether it’s worthwhile is part of the strategy.

That is one of the things you talk about is the strategies of building your online business or improving or growing a website that you bought or looking at how you can get more traffic to your website or how you can get more leads etc.

One of the ways to do that is if someone else is using it in another state and they’re not actually using it effectively, can you buy it from them?

Matt: And that’s a really common trait and a smart thing to do.

Liz was on a Zoom call just yesterday, doing exactly that. She privately approached someone to say, “Hey, I notice you haven’t done much with your website. Are you interested in selling it to us?” And she jumped on a Zoom call and had a chat with them.

That strategy can work really well because lots of people sit on their domain names and do nothing with them.

Why should I register the new .au domain extension?

Matt: Jeanette, there’s been some really interesting changes you mentioned too about the .au. Can you update us on what that means for us Australians holding these sorts of domain names and wanting to have a .au domain name?

Jeanette: So, the policies around domain names are published on the auDA website. That is the top registrar body in Australia that licenses all the other registrars and allows you to register your .com.au.

They published a new policy in August of last year, which allows for registering a .au by itself as a top-level domain name. That became live in March of this year.

And until September of this year, if you already have a .com.au or a .net.au, you can get priority registration of your .au.

What are the risks of NOT registering the new .au domain?

Jeanette: We are recommending that you do that to firstly protect your brand. That’s because there’s a risk if someone else purchases it, they could potentially steal your customers. Or there is a risk of fraud if you’ve got a high-turnover website (or a lot of money coming through).

There is the potential for a dodgy business to set up using the same domain name with just the .au. They can essentially charge your customers without delivering the same services that you’re providing, so that’s a risk.

So we’re looking at risk mitigation here and brand protection. This means using your .au to protect your brand, retain your IP, etc. And you just redirect it the same as you do with any other. If you’ve got multiple domains, it doesn’t mean building a new website. It just means securing your interests and strengthening whatever you are creating for your business.

Matt: Yes, so it’s just securing your online assets, really, for the sake of $20 bucks or whatever it costs to register it.

Jeanette: It’s $10 at the moment, I think. It is not expensive.

Matt: And they’ve got until September 2022?

Jeanette: Yes, I think it’s 20 September 2022 when it expires, and then it’s a free for all.

Matt: There you go. That’s a great tip for any Australian readers who own .com.au domains. Just go out and grab the .au version as well. You’ve got up until September 2022 to register the .au version of your .com.au domain names.

How to contact Jeanette Jifkins at Onyx Legal for advice for your websites

That is awesome, Jeanette. Thank you so much for coming along and sharing those updated legal tips on whether we need an ABN to register a domain name here in Australia.

And if anyone wants to reach out to you and contact you, what’s the best way for them to connect?

Jeanette: You can go to our website, www.onyx.legal. Or you can send us an email to advice@onyx.legal.

We can help you with trademarks and any questions about domain names. Happy to do that.

Matt: Awesome, thank you, Jeanette.

And Jeanette, we know how much you’ve helped out our community here when they’re buying and selling websites, particularly our beginners. But also, I know you help a lot of our very advanced clients as well, who are going gangbusters with their websites online. So, a big thank you.

I would highly recommend if you wanted to get legal advice based around websites (or the online space), even if you’re overseas, reach out to Jeanette and have a chat.

Thank you so much for coming along, Jeanette.

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Matt Raad
Matt Raad

Matt Raad is a website investor, Angel Investor and leading educator on Digital Asset Investments, and is recognised as the Australian expert in buying, renovating and selling profitable websites and businesses. Find him on Facebook, LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.