"Domain" v. "URL"
May 9, 2014 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I have to explain to a 75-year-old, non-techie person the difference between transferring a "URL" and transferring a "domain." I will also be trying to persuade her that agreeing to transfer a URL is NOT an agreement to transfer the whole domain. Help me do this. Credible citations and graphics much appreciated.

We've forwarded the URL to the IP address of the transferee's choosing. The transferee's not satisfied with this solution because we could always sell the domain name and may have access to their website analytics they don't want us to see. I don't think we have that access, but whatever. We don't want to transfer the entire domain because we have email coming to certain addresses that we don't want the transferee to read. I'm considering transferring the domain to an independent IT company and having them forward our email to us, keep it away from transferee, but let transferee adminster everything else to its choosing. Any pitfalls to this plan that I'm not thinking of?
posted by anonymous to Technology (27 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's request -- restless_nomad

It's not clear what it is you are doing. Which party currently owns the domain? When you say "URL" do you mean the address of a web page? whose web page is it? and do you each have email addresses associated with that domain?
posted by BillMcMurdo at 11:21 AM on May 9, 2014

This doesn't make a lot of sense. You can't "transfer" an URL. You can forward the URL. But that forwarding is entirely dependent on the owner of the domain to continue to do.

The domain on the other hand can be owned and gives you control. If the receiving party expects they purchased the domain, I'm not surprised they aren't happy with you if you just want to forward web traffic at them.

Someone is going to end up owning the domain and having the control.
posted by cmm at 11:30 AM on May 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

You can configure DNS to send all traffic directly to their server, except email for that domain, which would go to a separate server. That is exactly what DNS MX records are for. You will not have server logs or whatever for their web traffic, and they will not be able to read your emails.

However, this does not address the fear that you could sell the domain. If you transferred the domain to them, the problem would be in reverse - they could sell the domain and then you'd stop getting email. I don't think there's really any technical solution to that problem, whichever of you owns the domain has to convince the other to trust them enough to keep the domain and not sell the domain or intercept or cancel the other's traffic. However you wouldn't have to worry about the controlling party secretly reverting to intercept the traffic (DNS is publicly visible, plus it would show up in the web server logs or email headers). If you can't trust each other that far, one of you will have to transition to a different domain.
posted by aubilenon at 11:40 AM on May 9, 2014

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
assume i own the domain, and i'm working with an agreement that states, literally, that i will "transfer the URL [www.whatever.com]." not "http://www.whatever.com" but just "www.whatever.com." it does not say "transfer the domain." i understand that this language as-written does not make much sense, but i didn't write it and am left to figure out the next steps.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:44 AM on May 9, 2014

Okay, leave URL out of it. What it sounds like you're doing is that you're creating an A record (in DNS) for www.domain.com that points to the IP of the other confused person. The clearest definition that I was able to find, for your purposes, is (from domainmonster.com via google):

An A-record is an entry in your DNS zone file that maps each domain name (e.g. yourdomain.com) or subdomain (e.g. subdomain.yourdomain.com) to an IP address. In other words, the A-record specifies the IP address to which the user would be sent for each domain or subdomain. This means that you can have different subdomains of your website resolving to different IP addresses, which could be useful if they are hosted on different servers.
posted by destructive cactus at 11:49 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The only way I've seen this done in real life is if a person sold their domain to someone else but had a stipulation that "The URL that went to my most popular page http://example.com/ohsopopular must forever point to this fuzzy kitten photo"

So maybe think about a URL as pointing to a specific page and a domain as potentially pointing to all the pages but with pages being able to be excluded from that? I don't quite understand what you're trying to do either, but this may be a useful way to explain it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on May 9, 2014

a URL and a domain are functionally the same thing. you're essentially trying to retain control over a subdomain by refusing to grant the transferee authority over the domain, and it's no wonder they're confused.
posted by bruce at 11:55 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think, given the confusing wording, you have to go back to what the intent of the agreement was. Was the intent to turn over the domain to the customer? If so, do it.

Did the customer think they were getting ownership of the domain and the salesperson did not adequately explain the difference? Bounce it back to them to get it straightened out.

If somebody is using the domain for their own stuff, I don't get why you'd want to retain ownership anyway. You prevent them from making future changes without going through you, which creates a headache for both parties.
posted by zug at 12:04 PM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

When inexact teminology is used you get GIGO problems. A URL, or an A record can not effectively be transfered, however you can continue to maintain the requested setup from the contract.

However, just www.whatever.com is not a URL (yes, a url can be assumed from just the www.whatever.com - however it was specified that it wasn't http://www.whatever.com/ ). Worse, www.whatever.com is also not a transferable domain (yes, you could create a subdomain www.whatever.com - but you would still have the power to sell whatever.com and the new maintainers would not need to honour the subdomain). This contract as described is 100% rubbish, no wonder the two of you are having problems.

Even if you've setup an A record pointing to their server, as some are guessing, you'd still have some info from your nameservers on the number of lookups for their domain. You would not however has access to the URL's visited (assuming you don't own/maintain the IP the webserver is pointed on.

There is no way to transfer the domain and still maintain control of the MX entry. Either the purchaser needs to be happy with a contract that you'll never sell the domain (unless it has a clause that they must forever honour their DNS settings (likely unenforcable and unsatisfactory for your client)), or you'll need to transfer the domain to them with a provision that they will keep the MX entries pointing to your servers (again, not easily enforced, so you'd likely work hard to get people using these addresses to use new ones). I.E. one of you needs to make a compromise and move on.

Personally, as you/your organization is the seller, I think you need to transfer the domain (negotiate the MX entry giving you time to migrate to new addresses), or give them back their money. The intent, from the little that you've posted, was a "transfer".

... seriously, the inexactness of it all frustrates me just having read it.
posted by nobeagle at 12:10 PM on May 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Even if you use DNS to make an MX record point at you but setup their A and CNAME et all to point to them, you still own the domain and have control. You can delete their A records tomorrow if you want.

The reverse is going to be true if you transfer the domain. They can delete the MX record or point it back to them.

If the email addresses are important enough to you that you want to maintain control of the domain, then the person you are "selling the URL" to needs to accept that you have control of the domain and that you maintain the DNS. Then you make an A record for www.whatever.com and point it at the IP they give you and then convince them that is what they bought. Then you can still have the MX record for whatever.com go to your mail server and whois is going to look like you own www.whatever.com which may bring liability to you if they do something shady.

This whole thing seems terribly strange. Honestly, you need to decide between making money off the domain by selling it and migrating your email addresses or just sitting on a potentially valuable domain and enjoy your email addresses.
posted by cmm at 12:11 PM on May 9, 2014

The transferee's not satisfied with this solution because we could always sell the domain name and may have access to their website analytics they don't want us to see.

The first part is true, the second part is only partially true. They have control over the code on their pages, so they can put e.g. Google Analytics on them, tied to an account you don't have access, but you can conceivably get some hit numbers if you control the DNS. All in all, the analytics problem is a non-issue compared to the control (and transfer possibilities) for the actual domain name.

Terminology-wise, you can never "transfer" a subdomain such as www like you would the entire domain name, you "forward" or "delegate" it.
posted by rhizome at 12:17 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Transfer the domain to the new buyer, which is the only good-faith solution here, with the stipulation that they forward the desired email accounts to a new email address of your choosing.
posted by sageleaf at 12:23 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The URL is the address on an envelope. The domain is what's inside the envelope.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:24 PM on May 9, 2014

As a programmer I find that the only sensible interpretation of "transfer the URL www.whatever.com" is to transfer the whatever.com domain. If the contract really intended you to somehow retain control over the domain but lease out the www subdomain, it would have gone into much more detail, since that is an unusual and strange thing.
posted by value of information at 12:25 PM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

"The URL is the address on an envelope. The domain is what's inside the envelope."

No, the URL is the address on the envelope; the domain would be the mailbox/house it goes to.
posted by klangklangston at 12:31 PM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

A URL and a domain are not the same thing. As far as I can tell the agreement you have misuses terms and is, strictly speaking, incoherent. I can think of a few ways to interpret it. My best guess as to their intent is that they just want the domain. Even though they didn't say it, they want it to work when people type whatever.com into their browser instead of www.whatever.com.

If I were in your shoes, I'd ask for clarification, and try to come up with a revised agreement where there's no guessing. If this does involve transferring the domain, you can also try to get an additional agreement about email - but if they also get email for that domain, basically one of you will have administrative control whatever the technical solution (third party host or self-hosting), and whether that person reads the other's email is down to trust, though you might add some terms to the agreement about it.

Or just give them the whole thing, and migrate your mail to new addresses.
posted by aubilenon at 12:33 PM on May 9, 2014

Mod note: This is another followup from the asker.
the intent on the side that i am on was to surrender the website but keep certain email addresses--and ensure that only our side saw them (so, not have them merely be forwarded). my guess is at the time, no one realized that this would not be possible.

wouldn't the 3rd party IT solution work here?
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:37 PM on May 9, 2014

what did you promise to do in the contract? did the contract specifically reserve for you control over the subdomains you want? did the contract specify that the transferee would not be gaining control over the domain at the registrar level, where it counts? because if not, you have the task of persuading a 75 y.o. non-techie that what they thought they were getting will have to remain in escrow forever.
posted by bruce at 12:48 PM on May 9, 2014

www.example.com is to http://www.example.com/


whatever@example.com is to mailto:whatever@example.com

URLs refer to both mailto: and http:// requests, which is another reason that the contract language is problematic. It seems you are contractually obligated to do something that is impossible. The person might have a legal claim to their domain based on the reason they entered into the contract, but so might you, so it's a wash; you both have "URLs" you care about here. Also, "transfer" is a loaded word. Is that defined anywhere in the contract? (IANAL)
posted by tempestuoso at 12:50 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

and another question: which party drafted the contract? there's a rule of contractual construction that ambiguities in a contract are construed against the party who drafted it.
posted by bruce at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

If this other party intended "transfer the URL" to mean "transfer rights over, and control of, this URL", then I don't see how any other solution is viable than to transfer the domain itself.

If they contracted for rights and control be transferred TO THEM then it's hardly a solution to instead transfer the rights and control to a third party.
posted by emilyw at 1:09 PM on May 9, 2014

I can see no scenario, based on what you've described, where the buyer did not expect to get control of the domain. If you continue playing the url vs domain card or attempt to transfer to a third party, your buyer is going to start pulling out big legal guns. Get new email addresses, transfer the domain and save yourself a ton of trouble.
posted by sageleaf at 1:19 PM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is how I would explain this.

1. We want to separate website hosting from email hosting. These are the technically correct terms, unlike the terms we've been using so far.

2. Both the URLs and the emails are controlled by the owner of the "website.com" domain. The domain is just the "website.com" part. Everything else, such as www.website.com or email@website.com, are all parts of the domain. Right now, that domain is owned by us.

3. The owner ultimately decides where to host the website and the email. Technically, there is nothing difficult about separate hosting for the website and the email. People do this all the time.

4. Legally however, the domain owner is still in charge of both the URLs and the emails. This is just like a holding company - you can keep its child companies 100% separate and operating at arm's length, however, the holding company owner is ultimately in control.

5. Now that we understand the terms, we need to re-draft our contract to resolve two separate issues: (1) who will own the domain and (2) hosting or forwarding obligations of the owner.

6. If we continue to own the domain, we can agree to be contractually obligated to forward your URLs as you choose. These are our terms for this scenario.

7. If we transfer ownership to you, you need to agree to be contractually obligated to host our email as we choose. There are our terms for this alternate scenario.

Agree on #6 and #7 in principle and have your lawyer work out the rest.

Having said this, I would NOT recommend such an arrangement unless it is strictly temporary, e.g. they want to lease your URLs for 1 year as part of a marketing campaign. If this is not a temporary situation, it WILL get messy.

Example 1. You remain owners of the domain and agree to forward the URLs to a destination of their choosing. Congratulations, you just became the gratis DNS management service for these guys - every time they misconfigure some DNS setting on their end, they will come running to you, screaming "it doesn't work and it's your fault, fix it NOW or else you will be liable, we are losing $10k per day because our customers cannot get to our website!".

Example 2. They become the new owner and agree to host your emails. Congratulations, you just acquired an utterly incompetent email hosting service that regularly loses your emails or take two months to respond to your request to add a new addy, or whatever.

Example 3. You remain owners of the domain while they use it to build up their brand. A few years later, they take the domain from you based on their ownership of the brand or trademarks.
posted by rada at 1:57 PM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just want to add something. If you decide to go ahead, you REALLY need a lawyer who specializes in domain law, such as these guys for example.
posted by rada at 2:03 PM on May 9, 2014

Replying to the 2nd followup. Was anything about retaining control of the email written in to the contract? What is the wording used? Unless there's some significant verbage about email, and ultimate control of the domain being with original owner I think that the best reading of the little you've provided of the contract is you transfer the domain.

I say that because of the word "transfer" used in the contract, the only intellectual property (of domains, delegated subdomains, MX entries, dns A records and URL's) which can be transfered is the domain.

You could ask for an amendment to the contract such that they maintain DNS entries for the MX records which you require. This would give you un-snooped email. And leave you as vulnerable to them changing as they currently are to you, because with one dns change your email either bounces or goes to their servers (where they might forward it to you after copying it to later read (if you're not always paying attention they could do this and you wouldn't know without inspection of email headers, which most people ignore)).

on preview: rada has good points for how you explain to the powers that be why this is an ugly problem. The examples of things to go wrong are all good. The only good solutions are you break the deal and give back the money, or you transfer the domain and hope the MX record stays up long enough to get people to send to the new email addresses.
posted by nobeagle at 2:12 PM on May 9, 2014

"The URL is the address on an envelope. The domain is what's inside the envelope."

No, the URL is the address on the envelope; the domain would be the mailbox/house it goes to.

I would say that the URL is the whole address on an envelope (street, city, etc), and the domain is the name of the street/number in the address. The name of the street or the house number could change, but the contents of the house (represented by the hosted space) would not.

It's more similar to an analog telephone number, where you could conceivably sell your telephone number but you and your house would stay the same. The URL is the long-distance phone number that includes country code and area code, whereas the domain is the local phone number that does not require the country or area code.

Transferring a domain is like getting the telcom company to assign your number for some other purpose, such as for another person's house. You might not necessarily need to get a new phone number in order for someone to call you at your house (if the operator could patch them in, for instance) but it would be an unnecessary detour that is resolved by simply getting a new number to replace it. Nothing inside your house changes, just the number people use to call it.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 9:17 PM on May 9, 2014

How about transferring the domain, but with the stipulation that the MX record must continue pointing at a server under your control (or Google Apps for your domain, or fastmail, or whatever)?

New email addresses could be created on a subdomain, and the MX record for this subdomain be set to something different.

Then emails to your existing addresses (eg. valuableOldAddress@problematicdomain.com) would only be seen by you, and emails to new addresses (eg. newOwner@mail.problematicdomain.com) would only be seen by the other party.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:47 PM on May 10, 2014

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