Firms wonder whether to bite bullet and buy .sucks

Promotional video highlights Ralph Nader
A promotional video for the .sucks domain highlighted consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who said that the word "sucks" is now a protest word. Many retailers and other businesses see the selling of .sucks domains as extortion to force them to buy the domain before anyone uses it against them.
.sucks video

The Internet domain universe is in the midst of a big bang — hundreds of new domains are joining .com, .org and the relative handful of others with which people have become familiar.

There will be a .wine domain, .hotel and .love. There's even a realm of risque domains, including .porn and .adult.

But there's one domain in particular that some companies fear seeing after their name: .sucks.

"The question is: Do you take defensive measures to guard the sanctity of your brand?" said Nicholas Ahrens, vice president for privacy and cybersecurity at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, whose members include Target and Best Buy.

Neither company would speak about this topic. But like all companies with trademarked names, they will get the first shot at buying addresses in new domains.

Typically, it costs $20 or less a year to secure a Web address. But Ahrens notes that Vox Populi, the company that owns the .sucks domain, has priced addresses at $2,500.

"This is brand shakedown and not in line with the goal of free speech about a particular brand," he said. "You're talking about $2,500 a pop for every permutation for your brand."

Companies have until May 29 to secure .sucks addresses before other parties can try to grab them. Consumers will eventually get addresses for only about $10 each.

Vox Populi CEO John Berard said he envisions companies creating sites to consolidate and learn from customer complaints.

"There is a need for a new place where customers with a complaint and companies with an open ear can gather," he said.

With a website featuring clips of speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a shoutout from former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Berard's enterprise casts itself as a consumer ally.

Sucks video used speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.
A promotional video for the .sucks domain used a speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saying that "there comes a time when people get tired of being pushed, we can take it no longer."
.sucks video

Most new so-called generic top-level domains, or suffixes, relate to categories, products or companies. They were approved and dispensed by ICANN, a nonprofit that coordinates the Internet's addressing system.

Most buyers paid ICANN about $200,000 per domain. But some coveted top-level domains were auctioned off for millions of dollars. Google shelled out $25 million for .app. Berard won't say what he paid.

Daniel Schindler, co-founder of Donuts Inc., which owns nearly 200 domains including .restaurant and .dental, said they help companies better identify themselves on the Internet.

"If it ends in .restaurant it's going to be a restaurant. If it ends in .furniture or .football it's obvious what you're going to find when you get there," he said.

Schindler said the average retail price for addresses using domains his company owns is about $20 a year.

Still, companies are being selective in choosing which domain addresses to lock up.

"Most companies are probably taking the view that if it's a domain that we care about, register defensively," said Sheldon Klein, an intellectual property attorney with Gray Plant Mooty. "But if it's a domain name that has nothing to do with the company, like .bingo, I don't know that Target (for instance) has to register .bingo."

Target and Best Buy have secured Web addresses in the .porn and .adult domains, presumably to prevent their actual use. Target has also grabbed addresses in photo, toys, clothing and other domains.

Meanwhile, Best Buy has locked up addresses in the audio, camera and mobi domains. But so far it appears neither company has grabbed .sucks addresses.

When so-called cybersquatters do launch websites that violate a company's trademark, Klein said, they usually can be shut down. But he said it's often impossible for a company to shut down a gripe site, unless it profits from the firm's name, generates confusion or contains false, defamatory content.

"There have been some rulings both by arbitrators and courts that say a company cannot shut down these sites on First Amendment grounds," he said.

David Krejci, an executive vice president with the PR firm Weber Shandwick, wonders if the .sucks domain could really make things worse for companies.

"It's just another venue," he said. "How is that any different than all of the negativity that exists on a company's Facebook page, on Twitter or in a forum?"

Still, Krejci advises companies to buy addresses that they figure could be liabilities or assets.

So far, more than 5 million addresses have been purchased in the new domains, Schindler said. That includes .sucks addresses purchased this week by Nike, Converse and Timex, according to Berard.