Starting on March 30, a new, controversial generic top-level domain (gTLD) will go on sale: .sucks. Envisioning sites like Coke.sucks and Ford.sucks acting as a magnet for haters, a select list of brands on a “Trademark Clearinghouse” are being persuaded to fork over $2,500 a year to protect their brand names within a 60-day sunrise registration period before they are offered to the public at a much cheaper price.
Vox Populi Registry, a unit of Momentous.ca, paid a yet-undisclosed amount of money for .sucks and is framing the gTLD as positive and fun. On its nic.sucks site, Vox Populi offers a few instances in which that might be the case, including cancer.sucks and nycparking.sucks.
For existing brands, meanwhile, Vox Populi suggested they view .sucks as a CRM program: “By building an easy-to-locate, “central town square” available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, dotSucks is designed to help consumers find their voices and allow companies to find the value in criticism. Each dotSucks domain has the potential to become an essential part of every organization’s customer relationship management program.”
If that’s not enough, Vox Populi has released a video narrated by Ralph Nader and featuring Martin Luther King that presents .sucks as being in the grand tradition of “the fulfillment of human possibilities.” Nader—whose advocacy for the .sucks domain actually goes back to 2000, when he lobbied ICANN to make .sucks available to the public, but not the owners of the brand names and trademarks--closed the video by musing that “the word ‘sucks’ is now a protest word, and it’s up to the people to give it more meaning.”
John Berard, Vox Populi’s CEO, spent three decades in public relations and marketing. He argues that companies now have an unprecedented opportunity to start a dialogue with fans and critics. “On the one hand, companies have been susceptible to or have been subject to criticism that may have been unfair, but it was very difficult to run it to the ground because the Web has so many dark corners,” he told CMO.com. “People, on the other hand, with legitimate complaints often felt that they were cursing the moon. This is an opportunity to give each a greater platform.”
Not surprisingly, many brands think .sucks sucks. Before leaving office, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller dubbed .sucks “little more than a predatory shakedown scheme” and said it had “little or no public interest value.” Rockefeller’s comments echoed those of many in the marketing industry–most notably the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which has been a vocal opponent of expanding the list of TLDs on the grounds that it amounts to extortion for brands looking to protect their names on the Web.
Michael Berkins, editor of TheDomains.com, an industry blog, agreed. “I would say at this point it’s extortion,” he told CMO.com. “The biggest problem I have with it is they’re identifying trademark holders and putting their price 10 times higher than other trademark holders.”
Web site addresses have always been a headache for brands. Back in the ’90s, when the Web was introduced, entrepreneurs were quick to realize that buying up .com domains linked to famous brands could be a lucrative business. For instance, in 1996 Ross Koty, a photographer based in Laguna Hills, Calif., bought carlsjr.com, much to the chagrin of the fast-food brand of the same name. Carl’s Jr.’s lawyers rebuffed Koty’s request for $2,800 for the domain (a great deal, in retrospect) and took him to court. MTV, Taco Bell, KFC, and Estee Lauder also had to fight to get their .com domains from cybersquatters.
Eventually, in 1999, the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act was enacted, designed to stop would-be entrepreneurs from buying domains attached to famous brand names and trademarks. But because federal lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, most domain disputes are actually settled by Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (URDP) or a stricter, more restricted procedure called a Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS). Both mechanisms are overseen by licensed industry organizations.
That system faced a test in 2011 when ICANN raised the ire of some in the industry with its proposal to issue hundreds of gTLDs, including .insurance, .laptop, and .cocacola. Viewing the slew of new domain names as a shakedown, the ANA joined with other industry groups to form the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Name Oversight.
“By introducing confusion into the marketplace and increasing the likelihood of cybersquatting and other malicious conduct, the ICANN top-level domain program diminishes the power of trademarks to serve as strong, accurate, and reliable symbols of source and quality in the marketplace,” said Bob Liodice, ANA’s president and CEO, at the time. “Brand confusion, dilution, and other abuses also pose risks of cyber predator harms, consumer privacy violations, identity theft, and cyber security breaches. The decision to go forward with the program also violates sound public policy and contravenes ICANN's Code of Conduct and its undertakings with the United States Department of Commerce.”
Despite such protests and opposition by the FTC, in 2014, about 900 new gTLDs were introduced. Allen Grogan, chief contract compliance officer at ICANN, told CMO.com that of that total, only three were flagged as being potential problems--.wtf, .gripe, and .sucks.
The former two gTLDs were released without much fanfare. Berkins said the average gTLD only gets about 800 applications for use. One exception is the .xxx domain, which received 80,000 requests to block, many of which came from brands that were hoping to thwart a porn site that used their names.
In that case, the fee was in the $250 to $300 range, Grogan says. The fee for .sucks is 10 times that, which is one reason some are crying foul. In fact, originally Vox Populi was considering asking $25,000 a year for brands that wanted to secure their .sucks domains, Berard said.
Starting this week, brands can decide whether they want to pay $2,500 in perpetuity to snap up their .sucks domains. Considering the underwhelming response to other recent gTLDs, they might be inclined to take their chances. After all, buying .sucks doesn’t guarantee that they can’t buy Cokereally.sucks, Thisiswhycoke.sucks, or some other variation anyway to voice their discontent.
A sneaky way around, Berkins mused, might be to let the sunshine period lapse, get someone loosely affiliated with the brand to buy the .sucks domain for $10 (the lowest price available), and then quietly kill it. There might be an opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs, too: If you bought up, say, 100 .sucks domains of top brands, then there’s a decent chance at least one would approach you to take it off your hands.
Considering a brand would have to pay $25,000 every decade, paying a few thousand seems like a good deal. Ethically, you could also argue that you’re doing the brand a favor by letting it circumvent Vox Populi. Maybe that’s not the best outcome for a brand, but at least it sucks less than it might otherwise.