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Why is .sucks based in Frank Schilling’s office?

Kevin Murphy, March 23, 2015, Domain Registries

The upcoming new gTLD .sucks is being run from the offices of Frank Schilling’s Uniregistry and it has a close business relationship with the registry, DI has discovered.

Vox Populi Registry, which runs .sucks and which I and many others have been assuming is completely controlled by Canadian registrar group Momentous, in fact seems to be tightly aligned with Uniregistry.

Schilling characterized it both as a “working relationship” and a “joint venture” today.

I heard through the rumor mill last year that Uniregistry may have a stake in Vox Pop.

But it wasn’t until I checked the IANA database record for .sucks today that the rumor seemed to be to an extent confirmed.

The address for Vox Populi, a Canadian company according to its ICANN contract, is listed as Uniregistry’s office in Grand Cayman in both Registry Sponsor and Administrative Contact records.

Momentous CEO Rob Hall is named as Technical Contact at a Barbados address.

“We have a joint venture agreement and are presently handling postage and handling for Vox Populi,” Schilling told DI today. “We are providing office space services to them as well.”

He characterized the deal as a “working relationship”.

I would not be at all surprised if it’s much closer than that.

Could you survive a .sucks UDRP?

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2015, 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Another 19 cases were withdrawn or terminated; the remainder were split decisions.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.

Watch this jaw-dropping .sucks promo vid

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2015, Domain Registries

Is .sucks just a domain name registry? A way to extort money from trademark owners?

No, it’s the about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the kind of thing civil rights movement leaders including Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson could get behind.

At least, that’s the message in the jaw-dropping debut promo video for the new gTLD .sucks, which hits sunrise at the end of the month.

You may not instinctively associate registering a domain name with, say, Rosa Parks refusing to comply with Alabama’s racist segregation laws in the 1950s, but that’s what Vox Populi Registry is inviting you to do.

The video opens with stock news footage of MLK and various civil rights marches, accompanied by what seems to be audio from one of King’s speeches.

The video goes on to intermingle archive footage with nauseating B-roll padding, until we discover that none other than former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader loves .sucks.

He’s provided what seems to be an official endorsement, saying in part:

Most of the great changes in our planet’s history come from less than 1% of the people. For many changes in our country and the world, it’s a lot easier than we think. The word “sucks” is now a protest word, and it’s up to people to give it more meaning.

Nader is not as random a celebrity endorser as you might imagine. Fifteen years ago he wrote to ICANN to specifically endorse the creation of .sucks.

What do you think of the video? Clever? Inspiring? Funny? Tasteless? Offensive? Or just baffling?

Here’s why trademark owners will think .sucks sucks

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2015, Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry is to launch its .sucks gTLD at the end of the month, and its plans are likely to piss off trademark owners no end.

As previously reported, the company has backpedaled on its idea of pricing its sunrise period names at $25,000 per name per year, but it’s introducing some new concepts that seem almost designed to get hackles up in the IP community.

From March 30 to May 29, any company with a trademark registered in the Trademark Clearinghouse will be able to buy their matching .sucks domains at sunrise for $2,499. That’s also the annual renewal fee.

It’s a tenth of the price previously touted, but still pretty steep even by sunrise standards.

Vox Pop isn’t doing anything particularly unusual with its sunrise, which is governed by policies closely regulated by ICANN.

But its big new idea is its “Sunrise Premium” list, a list of strings dominated by famous trademarks.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI yesterday that the Sunrise Premium list has been compiled from strings registered or blocked in other TLDs’ sunrise periods.

While he declined to characterize it as a list of trademarks, he acknowledged that it will be trademark-heavy.

If your mark is on this list, you will never be able to get a .sucks domain at the regular general availability retail price of $249 a year. It will always be $2,499 a year.

Despite the name, Sunrise Premium names are only available during general availability, which begins June 1.

On the one hand, this mandatory premium pricing for the world’s most well-defended marks appears to have benefits for some trademark owners.

While Sunrise Premium names are not restricted to owners of matching marks, the $2,499 fee applies whether you’re the mark owner, a legitimate third-party registrant, or a cybersquatter.

So the high price looks like a deterrent to cybersquatting, suggesting that Vox Pop is fighting from the IP corner.

But then we discover that Sunrise Premium names will never be eligible for the .sucks “Block” service — similar to .xxx’s Sunrise B, a Block is a non-resolving registry reservation — which is expected to retail at a discounted $199 per year.

Berard said that the registry wants to encourage use.

“If you are on the Sunrise Premium list or want a premium name, those can’t be blocked,” Berard said. “It’s all part and parcel of us trying to put more power in the hands of individuals and to cultivate a commitment on behalf of the commercial world to participate in the dialogue.”

But the fact remains: if you have a track record of defensively registering your trademark, Vox Pop is essentially penalizing you with higher fees.

Feel those hackles rising yet?

Vox Pop’s stated goals are to give companies a way to manage customer feedback and individuals a way to exercise their rights to criticize.

“A company would be smart to register its name because of the value that consumer criticism has in improving customer loyalty, delivering good customer service, understanding new product and service possibilities,” Berard said.

“They’re spending a lot more on marketing and customer service and research. This domain can another plank in that platform,” he said. “On the other hand, we also want to make sure that these names are also accessible to individuals who have something to say.”

Companies on the Sunrise Premium list have an additional thing to worry about: the .sucks Consumer Advocate Subsidy, which will bring the price of a .sucks domain down to $9.95 per year.

The subsidy will only be available to registrants unaffiliated with the trademark-owning company, and they’ll have to direct their domains to a discussion forum platform called Everything.sucks.

Berard said Everything.sucks will be operated by a third party, but could not yet disclose the details.

The subsidy program will be available on regular and Sunrise Premium names, but not Sunrise names. It is not expected to launch until September.

It’s not yet clear how flexible and configurable the service will be.

It seems likely that if somebody wants to write a blog, say, criticizing a certain company, product, service or public figure, they will incur the usual $249 annual reg fee.

It’s not exactly “free” speech.

On the whole, the finalized policies and fees may look like they’re specifically designed to irk the IP lobby, but they do seem to be aligned with Vox Pop’s mission statement.

If you’re of the view that trademark owners should have the sole right to use the string matching their mark as a domain name, you’re likely to be unhappy with what Vox Pop is doing.

If, on the other hand, you’re an advocate of the right of every free person to stick it to The Man, you may view the policies more favorably.

Either way, it could be a money-spinner for Vox Pop.

I’m expecting .sucks to be only the third new gTLD to top 1,000 sunrise registrations (assuming .porn and .adult will be the first).

Assuming the registry’s slice of the $2,499 fee is over $2,000, the company is looking to clear in excess of $2 million in annually recurring sunrise revenue alone.

Battles for .chat, .style, .tennis, bingo and .sas over

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2014, Domain Registries

Seven new gTLD contention sets have been formally resolved with application withdrawals this morning, five of which we haven’t previously reported on.

Most appear to have been settled by private auctions, with Donuts often the victor.

The standout, however, is .sas, an unusual case of a contention set of two would-be dot-brand registries being resolved.

The business software maker SAS Institute, which applied as Research IP, has prevailed over the Scandinavian airline holding company SAS AB for the .sas gTLD.

Both applicants had applied for closed, single-registrant namespaces.

On the regular, open gTLD front, .chat has gone to Donuts after withdrawals from Top Level Spectrum, Radix and Famous Four Media.

.style has also gone to Donuts, after Uniregistry, Top Level Design, Evolving Style Registry and Minds + Machines withdrew their applications.

.tennis is another Donuts win. Applications from Famous Four, Washington Team Tennis and Tennis Australia have been withdrawn, after a failed Community bid from Tennis Australia.

Donuts, finally, beat Famous Four to .bingo.

Afilias and Top Level Spectrum have officially withdrawn their .wine applications. As we reported earlier this week, this leaves Donuts as the sole remaining applicant.

Top Level Spectrum’s bid for .sucks has also been withdrawn, confirming DI’s report from earlier this week that the controversial gTLD has been won by Vox Populi Registry.

But Donuts failed to win .online, withdrawing its application today. Only two applicants — Radix and I-Registry — remain in this once six-way contention set.

We’ll know the winner (my money’s on Radix) in a matter of days, I expect.