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Big-name forumware outfit vBulletin has banned multiple paying customers from its own support forums after they complained about a recent overhaul of the company's pricing scheme.

Some customers also say the company is preventing them from downloading product updates.

Now owned by the California-based Internet Brands - a self-described new media company - vBulletin offers messageboard software that underpins over 40,000 "online communities" across the web. But many users are up-in-virtual-arms over the company's new pricing rules, announced earlier this month. Complaints have flooded the vBulletin's own support forums - not to mention third-party forums and blogs - and over the weekend, the company rescinded the support forum credentials for at least a handful of these users.

"Since Internet Brands took over [vBulletin] and started changing things around, I have been quite critical of them on their public support forum, and this has escalated to a crescendo this week," one paying customer tells The Reg, after requesting anonymity. "[On Sunday], they inexplicably banned quite a few people, myself included, for their complaints."

According to this user, when he attempts to log in to the vBulletin support forums, he's greeted with a message that indicates he was banned for a particular post about the company's new pricing scheme. He also says the company has deactivated his "quality-forum support," which means he can no longer download software modifications from a sister site at vbulletin.org. And since the banning, his official support tickets have been ignored.

A similar story is detailed here, on the forums at AdminAddict.net. This user holds multiple vBulletin licenses, and he says the company rescinded the credentials associated with each one of them.

"In essence, they banned me because I said I was not going to be spending any more money on their software. They also banned me from vb.org which effectively ends my license, as I cannot receive updates, plugins, support (oh, did I mention since they banned me they won't reply to support tickets?)" he writes.

"Basically, I am going to be forced to switch to another software despite having an active license that is fully paid."

When we contacted vBulletin, general manager Ray Morgan originally said he would answer our questions about the forum bans - and the general protests over the company's new pricing setup. But more than 36 hours later, he has yet to do so.

vBulletin announced its new pricing plan on October 13, in the run up to the release of the new vBulletin 4.0. In the past, users paid a one-time fee for an "owned license." That meant they could use the product for all eternity - though they wouldn't receive upgrades, support, or security updates unless they renewed the license each year for a small additional fee. Under the new plan, these licenses vanish. In order to keep using the product in full, they must pay a larger one-time fee for the 4.0 upgrade.

As the company puts it: "vBulletin is changing to a one-time owned license fee for each major point release. That means no more annual renewal fees. Once you purchase a major point version, you’ll receive maintenance, security, and minor point releases for the life of 4.x."

In the past, a user might pay $160 for a vBulletin owned license, before renewing it each year for an extra $40 to $60. Now, if they want security and support, they'll have to spring for vBulletin 4.0, which is priced at $250. Users do have the option of keeping their current licenses active until their year-end expiration.

The company is currently offering version 4.0 at a discount, but this $130 offer is only available prior to the software's release. It expires at the end of this week. "I need to renew my subscription to receive security updates to my owned license for my forum software," a third user tells The Reg. "I cannot do this. I am being asked to pay again for a license for vBulletin 4, which is not released, and the new CMS suite, which is not even available as an online demo. In other words, my owned license is now worthless, and I am being forced to pay for something that is not available."

After public complaints along these lines, vBulletin exposed a beta of version 4.0 on its support site.

Internet Brands purchased vBulletin in July 2007. Most of the original developers left the outfit this past summer, and many longtime customers feel that somewhere along the line, the company turned its back on them. "The problem isn't just the way they handled these [pricing changes]," one user says. "They've also completely changed their attitude to customer service. In the past, they would at least engage with you. Now they just pull the shutters down - and they ban people who criticize them." ®

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