Porn-napped!

Q: A year ago, I registered an Internet domain name for the college club I head. Our treasurer was one day late in sending in our renewal fee last month, and in that 24-hour span the name was sold to a hardcore porn site! Is there any way to reclaim it?

Mr. Roboto hates to be the bearer of bad news, but the law's not your pal when it comes to domain name shenanigans. So-called porn-nappers, shady as their business may be, are well within their legal rights to buy up any lapsed name they wish, provided it isn't a registered trademark like, say, Villagevoice.com. Should the site really mean the world to your club, then there are ways of fighting back. But if you're going to tussle with the Web's bad seeds, be prepared to drain your bank account in the process.

As you've already discovered, remembering to re-up a domain name every year is a chore that's easy to sleep on. Registration services often fail to contact the administrator when the renewal fee is due, or send the notice to a defunct e-mail address. Should he eschew the traditional string-on-the-finger approach, perhaps your airheaded treasurer could benefit from an Internet reminder service, like Neverforget.com.

All it takes is a few hours for a porn-napper to snap into action. Scores of companies, primarily based in the former Soviet Union, scour domain-name lists 24-7, looking for sites that have fallen into arrears. They plunk down about $35 per expired name, then redirect traffic toward an adult site that offers them per-visit kickbacks of a penny or two. Unfortunately, it seems to be the most wholesome enterprises that get porn-napped; churches, in particular, tend to be rather remiss in renewing their domain names, so many parishioners have been bombarded with "I'm 18 and Wet!!!" fare while looking for info on their diocese's next pancake breakfast. More secular victims include the Ballet Theater of Maryland, the Boston Philharmonic, and even the Department of Education.

A porn-napper's greatest hope is that you'll pay up the ying-yang to recover your beloved domain name. "These cases usually settle, as the new registrant is often willing to sell the domain name back again at a nice profit," says Michael Geist, a cyberlaw professor at the University of Ottawa, who adds that it can be a particularly "expensive lesson learned"—the bidding starts at $500, and high-traffic names go for several thousand bones.

Sadly, paying such extortionary prices may be your cheapest option. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann.org), which manages the domain-name system, does have a dispute resolution process, but it's very expensive. It'll cost you roughly $1000 merely to file a complaint, and then there's the cost of hiring a lawyer to draft a claim. All that money will go for naught, unless you can prove the disputed name is integral to a trademark you own. Were some smut purveyor to register MrRoboto.com, for example, yours truly would have little recourse, since neither Styx nor The Village Voice has trademarked the name. (Note to said smut purveyors: Don't get any big ideas.)

If your college exists in the same wondrous Shangri-la where Gummi Bears double as doughnut sprinkles, perhaps you have enough cash to fight a court battle. The University of North Carolina recently won an infringement lawsuit against UNCGirls.com, forcing the site to shut down and garnering a $325,521.64 award.

Or you can always try appealing to the porn-napper's conscience—got a good puppy-dog act?—but post-Soviet Internet varmints aren't known for being softies. In the end, all Mr. Roboto can offer is a little tough-love advice on dreaming up a new domain name: There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Use them.


Ever wondered why console games cost $50 plus, while lots of DVDs are going for under $20 nowadays? So, too, have the folks at FairPlay (Fairplay-campaign.co.uk), a British consumer group that pressing for lower game prices. FairPlay reckons game makers overcharge because the public's not quite hip to the industry's economics. Mr. Roboto's not 100 percent convinced, but any group that organizes a boycott called "Don't Buy a Videogame Week," which we're currently in the midst of, can't be all bad. For those who can't fathom why the hot Xbox title Steel Battalion costs $200, FairPlay's site is highly recommended.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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