How one of the most valuable domains in the world was fought for.
On its face, sex.com looks like a no-frills Pinterest for porn, but behind the site lies an ongoing grudge match between the man who invented online dating and a con artist who stole the crown jewel of the internet out from under him.
The history of the domain is well documented, with two books and dozens of articles written on the subject. It was first registered in 1994 by Gary Kremen, the entrepreneur who founded Match.com and was savvy enough to buy up several generic domains, including jobs.com and housing.com, in the early days of the internet.
Kremen just sat on the domain sex.com while he built his online dating business, until one day, somebody notified him the email behind the site had changed. He thought this was a glitch, not unlikely with the state of software at the time, but soon noticed all of the ownership information for the domain had been changed. When he called the phone number associated it, Stephen Cohen, a brilliant con man who was soon to become his lifelong rival, answered.
"Kremen asked him, 'What are you doing with my domain name?' And Cohen said, 'No, it's my domain now,' and basically told Kremen to fuck off," Kieren McCarthy, a journalist whose book Sex.com retells the saga surrounding the legal battle for the site, said.
To this day, it is unclear how, exactly, Cohen gained ownership of the domain. He was a high school dropout and adept swindler who had been pulling heists like this his whole life. McCarthy said he believes Cohen found a technical loophole to put in an amend request—and Kremen's lawyers alleged he may have gotten a little extra help from someone at the company that hosted the domain.
"He was suspected to have had a sexual relationship with someone at Network Solutions, and conned someone into changing the email address to his email address, and used that to get the rest of the information changed," McCarthy said.
Unsurprisingly, sex.com was a popular random word to punch in
Kremen lawyered up and began his quest to get Sex.com back. Meanwhile, Cohen started running the site, selling ads to make around half a million dollars a day. This was in the days before Google, when people just typed in various domains to surf the web. Unsurprisingly, sex.com was a popular random word to punch in, and it got millions of visitors a day.
"It was the best domain on the internet because you had millions of people turning up just to see what was there," McCarthy said. "He made millions just by existing. It was the Holy Grail of the internet at the time, and people went a bit mad over it."
A legal battle over the domain ensued for the next five years, with both men equally tenacious in their quest to get hold of the site.
"These were two very smart and very determined people, neither of whom like losing on any level," McCarthy said. "So Cohen stole it and was making millions, so he fought tooth and nail to keep it, and Kremen was overwhelmed with this sense of injustice. He was absolutely driven to beat this guy."
Kremen ultimately won the case, setting an important legal precedent that domain names constitute intangible property and can be stolen. Cohen appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. He was ordered to pay Kremen $64 million in lost earnings in 2001, which launched the next part of the saga surrounding sex.com.
Kremen responded by posting "wanted" signs all over the Mexican town
After losing the case, Cohen fled across the border to Tijuana to avoid paying the settlement. Kremen responded by posting "wanted" signs all over the Mexican town with Cohen's photo and information. McCarthy said Cohen claimed this resulted in bounty hunters showing up at his door and instigating a firefight with the Mexican police.
Eventually Cohen was extradited from Mexico and sent back to the US, where he sat in jail for six months until a judge gave up on trying to make him pay up. To this day, Cohen has refused to pay a penny of the $64 million he owes Kremen, according to McCarthy. The only thing Kremen was able to wrest from Cohen in the end was one of his properties, which he paid people to destroy before Kremen took ownership of it. And the petty fight continues.
"Kremen pays a set of lawyers just to follow anything Cohen does," McCarthy said. "So they've been playing this cat and mouse game for 10 years. He chases Cohen around the world trying to get the money off of him, and Cohen flees around the world refusing to pay him."
So what is sex.com up to these days? Kremen auctioned it off for an estimated $13 million in 2006. It has changed hands a couple times since then, and is now a major porn website, functioning as a sort of Pinterest service allowing users to upload and share adult content. It's still profiting off the wealth of traffic it gets just from sitting on the domain, although it is nowhere near as successful as it was in the days before Google.
Martin Kelly, a project manager at Sex.com, said the site is now run by a staff of approximately 20 people based out of Montreal. The site sees about 1.8 million visits a day between desktop and mobile, and they are planning a redesign in the near future.
"A lot of historic big-name sites have had challenges with getting the right content to the right users," Kelly said. "What we wanted to do is go back and analyze the data of what our most preferred content is and design areas that will really pinpoint the desires of our users. We want users to be able to follow their favorites stars and share content in a beautifully presented package."
While its days as the Holy Grail of the internet may be behind it, the value of sex.com is still undeniable.
Masters of their Domain is a column that investigates who owns popular or interesting domain names, and what they're doing with them.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported the amount of money Sex.com was making at first as "millions of dollars a day;" in fact it was closer to half a million dollars a day.