Tim Lince

Vox Populi Registry, the company behind ‘.sucks’, is looking to deflect repeated criticism ahead of the planned autumn launch of its Consumer Advocate Subsidy programme. The company continues to promote its Trailblazers Programme, as it hopes to encourage a more positive community spirit on the ‘.sucks’ platform. It has also launched a range of promotional websites, two of which lawyers claim could toe close to the line when it comes to infringing the IP rights of entertainment powerhouse DC Comics.

Since going into general availability just over a month ago, the ‘.sucks’ string has garnered over 6,200 registrations. The standard recommended retail price of a ‘.sucks’ domain is in the premium range for a new gTLD, at an average of $249 a year. The annual registration fee during the extended sunrise period earlier in the year was $2,499, a figure labelled as “predatory” by IP owners. Responding to questions from World Trademark Review, the registry’s CEO John Berard says he is unperturbed by ‘.sucks’ breaking through the 6,000 registration barrier, stating: “We have not trafficked in the number of registrations and won’t start now. We want the registry’s reputation to be based on use, effect and innovation.”

In that spirit, Vox Populi has two programmes it hopes will spur more constructive usage of ‘.sucks’ websites. The first, the ongoing Trailblazers Programme, seeks registrants who already operate online communities at addresses that include the word “sucks” (eg, ‘cancersucks.com, ‘rudenesssucks.com). The registry is offering a financial incentive for those who choose to relocate their online community to the ‘.sucks’ string. This appears to be an attempt by Vox Pop to shore up goodwill on a domain platform that has been frequently criticised as being solely for negative use. Only last week, a Boston Globe article described ‘.sucks’ as being “a clever, creepy scheme” for people to “launch snarky, savage attacks on a target”. 

Meanwhile, the Consumer Advocate Subsidy programme will encourage consumers to host a forum discussion website for a heavily subsidised registration price. These domains are expected to be priced below $10 and will launch in September. However, the programme came under scrutiny last week, as it was confirmed that the lower pricing “is a subsidy, not a discount” and Vox Populi “will still demand its full wholesale [$199] registry fee for every ‘.sucks’ domain that is sold”. This means that the subsidy partner will incur growing annual costs, potentially in the millions. Berard defended this strategy, saying the company has been wholly transparent about its plans and partnership talks continue with “a number of free speech advocates and domain name companies”.

Beyond the Trailblazers and Advocates programmes, Vox Populi has also stepped up promotional activities with the launch of a number of ‘.sucks’ hosted adverts. This includes two websites, ‘boston.sucks’ and ‘newyork.sucks’, designed to enflame the ire of baseball fans. In typical Vox Populi style, a billboard has been erected in close proximity to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, to promote the anti-New York Yankees site. The company has also launched ‘cilantro.sucks’ (encouraging criticism sites about various food topics) and ‘traffic.sucks’ (with an associated billboard on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco).

Finally, there is the quiet launch of ‘batman.sucks’ and ‘superman.sucks’, which appear to have sprung up shortly after the release of the Comic-Con trailer for upcoming movie blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both sites include text and imagery related to the two superheroes, an automated Twitter stream and the encouragement of visitors to register a ‘.sucks’ domain. But this content could land Vox Populi in hot water, according to Douglas Wolf, a partner at Wolf Greenfield. He explains: “The more-than-necessary effort by Vox Populi to leverage the Batman and Superman assets – trademarks, character names, themes, storylines and some trade dress – to draw in customers for not only Batman and Superman, but to anything else ‘.sucks’ in general, certainly appears to have crossed the line. It is one level to suggest that disappointment with Superman can be voiced at ‘superman.sucks’, but instead Vox appears to have concluded that driving the Batmobile will lead to more traffic.”

This point is echoed by Carissa Kendall-Palmer, an IP solicitor at EIP, who claims that Vox Pop “may be on shaky ground from a trademark infringement perspective”. However, should DC Comics decide to launch a UDRP action, she adds that “Vox Populi are likely to argue is it ‘free speech’ or ‘fair use’ which, on balance, it probably is”. This means DC Comics will need to weigh up whether taking a legal takedown approach is the best strategy, says Wolf. “Even if DC Comics has a claim, they will internally balance the value of pursuing such an action,” he explains. “Being in favour of litigation includes the precedent that could be set if they do not stop unauthorised uses. On the other side, in addition to the cost of litigation, there is a parallel to fan sites in that they may see value in a platform which keeps Batman and Superman discussions active and indirectly may lead to additional revenue. But Vox Populi’s use is for the sale of domain name services so I suspect that they would have less interest in tolerating this.”

For his part, Berard confirms Vox Populi has “not had any complaints” about the two websites - yet. This is, of course, a company that enjoys stoking controversy (let’s not forget the truck emblazoned with “INTA.sucks” that drove around San Diego during this year’s INTA Annual Meeting). Vox Populi “is a young company taking its first few steps,” Berard concluded. Time will tell whether criticism of ‘.sucks’ from multiple angles - on its negative image in the popular press, its controversial pricing practice and for possible IP infringement – will start to take a toll as the company begins to mature.


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