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Could you survive a .sucks UDRP?

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2015, 12:30:29 (UTC), Domain Policy

If you register a .sucks domain matching a brand, could you survive a subsequent UDRP complaint? Opinion is mixed.

In my view, how UDRP treats .sucks registrants will be a crucial test of Vox Populi Registry’s business model.

Vox Populi Registry clearly envisages — and is actively encouraging with its policies — genuine critics, commentators and consumer advocates to register .sucks domains that match famous trademarks.

I really like this idea. Power to the people and all that.

But will UDRP panelists agree with me and Vox Pop? Cybersquatting case law under UDRP says, very firmly: “It depends.”

Statistics generally favor mark owners

To date, there have been exactly 100 resolved UDRP complaints against domains that end in “sucks.com”.

Of those, 47 cases ended up with a full transfer of the domain to the trademark owner. Only 30 resulted in a the complaint being denied.

Another 19 cases were withdrawn or terminated; the remainder were split decisions.

So it seems, based on historical “sucks” cases, that the odds favor trademark owners.

But each case is, theoretically at least, judged on its merits. So it does not necessarily hold that most .sucks UDRP complaints will be successful.

What does WIPO say?

The World Intellectual Property Association, which administers most UDRP cases, published a set of guidelines for its panelists.

Some guidelines specifically addresses “sucks” sites, but the advice is not always clear-cut.

There are three elements to UDRP. First, the complainant must show that the domain name in question is identical or confusingly similar to its trademark.

According to WIPO, it’s the “consensus view” of UDRP panelists that adding “sucks” to a trademark at the second level does NOT stop a domain being confusiningly similar. WIPO says:

Generally, a domain name consisting of a trademark and a negative or pejorative term (such as [trademark]sucks.com) would be considered confusingly similar to the complainant’s trademark for the purpose of satisfying the standing requirement under the first element of the UDRP (with the merits of such cases typically falling to be decided under subsequent elements). Panels have recognized that inclusion of a subsidiary word to the dominant feature of a mark at issue typically does not serve to obviate confusion for purposes of the UDRP’s first element threshold requirement, and/or that there may be a particular risk of confusion among Internet users whose first language is not the language of the domain name

Some panels have disagreed with this prevailing view, however.

It remains to be seen whether moving the string “sucks” to the right of the dot would affect the outcome, but it’s established UDRP case law that the dot in a domain can be pretty much ignored when testing for similarity.

The TLD a domain uses can be taken into account if it’s relevant or disregarded if it is not, according to precedent.

The second test under UDRP is whether the registrant of the domain has legitimate rights or interests.

Panelists disagree on this point. WIPO says:

The right to criticize does not necessarily extend to registering and using a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to the complainant’s trademark. That is especially the case if the respondent is using the trademark alone as the domain name (i.e., [trademark.tld]) as that may be understood by Internet users as impersonating the trademark owner.

That view would seem to apply specifically to the use cases Vox Pop has in mind — the registry wants critics to own [trademark].sucks domains in order to criticize the trademark owner.

In the 2003 case of natwestbanksucks.com, the WIPO panel drew on earlier precedent to find that the registrant had no rights to the domain.

Respondents’ can very well achieve their objective of criticism by adopting a domain name that is not identical or substantially similar to Complainants’ marks. Given the free nature of the media which is the Internet and the chaotic spamming that has become epidemic, it does not appear that one can be at full liberty to use someone else’s trade name or trademark by simply claiming the right to exercise a right to freedom of expression”.

In other words: you may have a right to free speech on the internet, but you do not have the right to exercise it simply by adding “sucks” to a famous trademark.

But other UDRP panelists have disagreed. WIPO says that some panelists have found:

Irrespective of whether the domain name as such connotes criticism, the respondent has a legitimate interest in using the trademark as part of the domain name of a criticism site if such use is fair and noncommercial.

The third element of UDRP is bad faith. Complainants have to show that the registrant is up to something dodgy.

Some panelists have a pretty low threshold for what constitutes bad faith. Merely having the page parked — even if you did not park it yourself — can point to bad faith, especially in “sucks” cases.

WIPO says that “tarnishment” of a trademark — such as posting porn, which is banned under Vox Pop’s AUP anyway — can be bad faith, but legitimate criticism would not usually:

While it would not normally extend to the mere posting of information about a complainant, or to the posting of genuine, non-commercial criticism regarding the trademark holder, it may extend to commercially motivated criticism by (or likely on behalf of) a competitor of such trademark holder.

So, with all that in mind, here are some tips for improving your odds of surviving a .sucks UDRP.

How to beat a .sucks UDRP

Poring over dozens of “sucks.com” decisions, it quickly becomes clear that there are certain things you should definitely do and not do if you want to keep a hold of your brand-match .sucks domain.

Given the volume of precedent, you’ll have a hard time showing that your domain is not identical or confusingly similar to the trademark in question — strike one — but there are ways to show legitimate interests and rebut claims of bad faith.

1. Respond

To show you lack legitimate interests, the complainant only needs to make a face-value argument that you do not. Then the burden of proof to show rights switches to you.

If you don’t respond to the UDRP, the panel will find you lack rights. Panelists rarely try to fight the corner of a registrant who has not responded.

That’s strike two.

2. Don’t allow your domain to be parked

If a domain is parked, UDRP panelists in “sucks.com” cases invariably find that the registrant lacks legitimate interests and has shown bad faith.

Parking is considered a commercial activity, so you won’t be able to argue convincingly that you’re exercising your right to non-commercial free speech if your domain is splashed with links to the trademark owner’s competitors.

This holds true even if the domain was automatically parked by your registrar.

Dozens (hundreds?) of UDRP cases have been lost because Go Daddy parked the newly registered domain automatically, enabling the complainant to show commercial use.

Panelists are usually happy to overlook the lack of direct bad faith action by the registrant in such cases.

Parking will usually lead to strikes two and three.

In the case of .sucks, parking is actually banned by Vox Populi’s acceptable use policies (pdf).

But the registry will only enforce this policy if it receives a complaint. I don’t know if the Registry-Registrar Agreement, which isn’t public, prohibits registrars auto-parking new domains.

3. Develop a site as soon as possible

In some “sucks.com” cases, respondents have argued that they had intended to put up a criticism site, but could not provide evidence to back up the claims.

If you register a .sucks matching a trademark, you’ll want to put up some kind of site ASAP.

In the case of kohlersucks.com, the registrant had merely framed a Better Business Bureau web page, which was found to show non-commercial criticism use.

4. Don’t offer to sell the domain

It should go without saying that offering to sell the domain to the trademark owner shows bad faith; it looks like extortion.

Panelists regularly also find that registrants give up their legitimate rights to a domain as soon as they make it available to buy.

5. Don’t make any money whatsoever

The second you start making money from a domain that matches a trademark, you’re venturing into the territory of commercial use and are much more likely to fail the WIPO test of “genuine, non-commercial criticism”.

6. Be American

Depressingly, you stand a better chance of fighting off a UDRP on free speech grounds if both the case involves US-based parties and a US-based panelist.

Panelists are more likely to draw on the US Constitution’s First Amendment and associated non-UDRP case law when determining rights or legitimate interests, when the registrant is American.

Merely registering with a US-based registrar is not enough to confer First Amendment rights to a registrant living outside of the US, according to UDRP panels.

Even though freedom of speech is a right in most of the world, in the universe of UDRP it seems the rest of us are second-class citizens compared to the yanks.

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