You’re trying to get to a popular website run by a large soda company. You type in what you think is the URL on the bottle’s label, but you end up looking at a cat getting a single slice of American cheese thrown on its face, on loop. The sides of the website are plastered with ads, and as you go to close the tab, pop-ups begin covering the page. There’s no way the soda company would allow this, right? How did you get here?
When you look at the URL bar, you realize you didn’t actually type in the correct URL – you typed in DeitCoke.com, a common typo. In anticipation of this event, someone bought DeitCoke.com and turned it into an ad nightmare so they could harvest ad revenue from typos. The first type of typo domain squatter is just looking for free ad revenue, and they abuse the system to get it.
The second type of typo squatter is only buying so they can convince the company they’re typo-ing off of to buy the typos, too. The Coca Cola company has no reason to buy DeitCoke.com until domain squatters give them a reason, by producing a site that could taint their image. They fill the typo pages with terrible content and wait for Diet Coke fans to show up and complain.
South32: Mining or Movie?
Typo-squatting has been an issue for years. For example, young adults may remember “South32” popping up when they mistyped an address, or when they were trying to look up a certain mining company that just also happened to be called South32. South32 was allegedly a movie production, and one of the main story writers bought an insane amount of URLs to ‘advertise it’. Like 18,000 URLS! Including the URL the mining company was intending to use and most of it’s variants. The main writer attempted to sell them the primary domain (South32.com) for a large amount of money, but instead of buying the .com, the company just bought the .net of their name instead and told them to get lost.
The goal was to get people misdirected to a “horror movie” promotional website (which was really just a page filled with disturbing images). Hopefully, the parent company would get enough complaints that they’d buy the domains out. South32 stands out because of the lengths the guy went to get these websites – some little low-budget movie did actually come out to legitimize the website ownership so the host wouldn’t pull the plug, even though the squatter never got to sell it. It’s apparently a pretty bad movie, even for low-budget standards.
Sometimes, in cases like South32’s, domain squatters can just up and buy the full, correct name of the website they’re planning to hold for ransom, especially if it’s already weird or fanciful.
Retired Youtuber Jenna Marbles described running into this issue when she was just starting out. She’d gained several thousand followers nearly overnight, but she wasn’t yet in the market for a website. Someone bought the URL JennaMarbles.com and then reached out to her to attempt to sell it, however the price was wildly too high – even if she’d wanted to buy it, the squatter had over-priced it so badly she couldn’t afford it. And as said before, she didn’t want to buy it.
Jenna got off fairly easily; domain squatters got more aggressive as time went on. Websites with popular creator’s names were bought and filled with malicious ads, violent content, and suggestive videos that were wildly inappropriate for the content creators’ audience. By forcing the issue, domain squatters were hoping that they held creators hostage: “either buy this website or I’ll leave it filled with these ads. Your followers will think it was your idea.” This was more annoying than damaging. Many creators simply chose a different variant of their creator tag if they made a website at all.
A great many didn’t! Websites like Fanjoy sold merch, and social media worked better than websites did for spreading news about potential tours and meet-n-greets. Turns out, nobody really enjoys negotiating with scalpers, and they’ll do a lot to avoid giving that domain squatter the satisfaction of a purchase.
Many small businesses didn’t have that option in the early 2000s. If you’re running a small business off a site like Etsy, you may eventually plan to create your own site with the goodwill you’ve built off of Etsy. This happens a lot when these small businesses succeed! Unfortunately, domain squatters saw this trend, and began buying variations of that branding before the business owner got a chance to. There were few options besides hoping the domain host was accepting complaints, but if the business hadn’t actually copyrighted their name (like many microbusinesses didn’t) the whole thing used to turn into a legal gray area. The hosting site doesn’t want to get involved in any legal processes, and nobody’s set a precedent yet. A small business would have had to actually sue the other side to get any sort of recourse!
Eventually, enough people with the resources to sue came forward to call it what it was: copyright infringement. Deliberately catching all domains a company may use to sell them back to the company is copyright infringement. Creating websites based purely off of names in media exclusively to sell them back to their namesake is copyright infringement.
The US’s anti-cybersquatting act cut much of this malicious domain-purchasing down to nothing. Even better, the WIPO, or World Intellectual Property Organization, arbitrates for website hosting organizations all over the world, so even if the infringer isn’t in the same country, there’s some recourse. Squatters have next to no power, now!
They’d be forced to either use the phone or get out of the booth: if one company has legitimate copyright claim to the domain, and the squatter’s not actually using the domain for anything besides ads or scalping, the hosting company can cut them from it. It’s a good decision, really. In the same way people aren’t allowed to use “SrarBucks” to sell coffee in real life, domain squatters aren’t allowed to use “Srarbucks” unless they can prove that they were selling products in good faith and they’re not profiting off of customers misunderstanding.
Of course, people can still buy “StarbucksSucks.com”, or “StarbucksIsTheBest.com”, as long as they’re using it with fair use in mind and don’t intend to deceive consumers into believing their site is Starbucks’s official site.
Cybersquatting on usernames was also a problem, especially with sites like Twitter, which the Act didn’t cover explicitly. All it takes is a picture of the celeb and a believable handle to steal their potential followers and taint brand image with vulgarities or strange posts. As a result, Twitter introduced their verification feature, partly because they were starting to get sucked into legal battles over copyright, partly because the site would be unusable if it kept happening. Cybersquatters can’t hide behind being obnoxious and claiming it’s ‘parody’ anymore. They also can’t sell the account for more than it’s worth to the impersonatee, either, since Twitter also agrees that’s scalping. Everyone comes out better.
Domain squatting is slowly being reduced to extreme typos and keysmashing, as it should be.