As the author of the WWW FAQ, I regularly answer questions about the workings of the Web. If a question is frequently asked, I simply add an article to the FAQ. But sometimes a question is more detailed, more in-depth— not really a FAQ, but still of interest to others. You'll find those questions, with my answers, here in Innards along with commentary on other web-technology-related topics.2007-12-05
Q. We are building a new website for a not for profit organization. The previous website was set up by someone else who will not release the authorization code so that we can make changes. Here's what we want to know: does the nonprofit have to be listed as a .org domain, or can we get a new listing under .net or .com?
A. Anybody can register a .net or .com domain. But registering only a .net or .com address for a nonprofit organization is usually a mistake. The wrong domain name raises serious doubts in the mind of the user.
I, for one, would have doubts about making a donation on a .com site ("gee, aren't they for profit?"). Your web site may be mistaken for a "scam" site set up to impersonate the legitimate organization.
However, registering .com as well as .org can be a smart choice. That's because less experienced users sometimes forget that .com isn't everything and you catch their typos that way. Just make sure the .com site redirects to the .org site so that the user sees the correct URL in the address bar and the wrong URL is never bookmarked, linked to or published.
At any rate, registering the "wrong" domain name for yourself or for your client is almost always a big mistake. The organization in question has a legal right to its name, especially if it is trademarked, and should remind the noncooperating former web design firm of this (if that is what's going on— it's unclear from your letter). Their contract with the prior web designer may also legally entitle them to all of the products of their work, which would include the domain name registration. A short letter from a lawyer usually works wonders.
You'll note that the words "legal," "contract" and "lawyer" appear prominently in my response. That's because this is a legal problem and should be resolved by legal means— not worked around by technical means.
If your client does insist that you register the "wrong" domain name for them instead, make sure you get that in writing, because it is a very bad idea and it should be clear to all that it wasn't your first choice. The public will continue to go to the old/obvious domain name. And the public just doesn't care about your internal power struggles.
Simply put, multiple competing "official" web sites for one organization are tacky and unprofessional and that problem should be solved before you go forward.