Twittersquatting: Twitter Is Doing Something About It

Many prominent brand names and trademarks have been registered as Twitter usernames by non-affiliated individuals.  As Twitter’s popularity has skyrocketed, corporations have taken note and become much more interested in securing their usernames.  While trademark owners are understandably concerned that Twitter has complete control over the assignment of usernames, Twitter’s newly-updated terms of service and rules improve protections for trademark holders.

Twitter usernames are valuable

Twitter, created in 2006, is one of the fastest growing web sites in the world, and is among the top fifty most popular sites as ranked by Alexa. Users can post updates (or “tweets”) of up to 140 characters. Many celebrities and corporations now use Twitter to give their followers information about their daily activities, photographs from events, or links to web pages.

On Twitter, the username doubles as a web address. For example, the user “donttrythis” (Adam Savage, co-host of the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters”) can be found at Twitter.com/donttrythis. As with domain names, short and readily-identifiable names are preferred.

With the rapid growth in traffic to the site, corporations have been staking their claims to Twitter usernames. But before many corporations could gain control of the Twitter username that corresponds to their brand name, individuals registered them – for example, Twitter.com/nike. Many bloggers, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, began warning corporations to protect themselves from this so-called “Twittersquatting.”   Without the protection of a statute analogous to the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, trademark owners are left at the mercy of Twitter to determine how to assign, suspend, and reassign usernames.

Corporations are becoming more aware of their presence on Twitter

In January 2009, attorney and engineer Erik J. Heels wrote a blog post discussing the failure of an overwhelming majority of the top 100 brands in securing their brand name on Twitter. Incredibly valuable brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Microsoft, IBM, Marlboro, and many others did not control their brand name on Twitter.  While 97 of 100 had the internet domain name that corresponded to their brand name, only 7 of 100 had the Twitter username corresponding to their brand name. Mr. Heels recommended that social networking companies work together to create a uniform username dispute resolution policy (UUDRP) analogous to the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy.

As of this post, there is no UUDRP.

There has been, however, quite a change in the control of the top 100 brand names on Twitter. As of November 8, 2009, 28 of those top 100 brands control their brand name on Twitter. While this is still a minority of the top brands, it is a 400% increase from less than one year ago. So what has changed?

Twitter has changed its policies

On January 14, 2009, Twitter posted “The Twitter Rules” on its website. These rules explained more clearly Twitter’s policies on impersonation of persons or corporations, name squatting, and trademark usernames. Twitter also updated its Terms of Service on September 10, 2009 (with a subsequent update on September 18, 2009) incorporating the Twitter Rules as part of Twitter’s terms of service.

The differences between the old terms of service and the new terms of service (including the Twitter Rules) are significant. The old terms banned “illegal and unauthorized purpose[s],” and retained the right to “modify or terminate Twitter.com service for any reason, without notice,” and “reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.” These terms did not explain when the rules would be enforced, nor the criteria Twitter would use to reach its decisions.

The new terms of service explain that “accounts that are inactive for more than six months may . . . be removed without further notice” and that “you will not . . . sell” Twitter usernames. These rules have been augmented over time by more detailed explanations of Twitter’s trademark policy, name squatting policy, and impersonation policy, as well as the methods for reporting violations of those rules.

The increased detail and clarity in Twitter’s rules have allowed corporations to know their rights, and have given them the means to enforce those rights through Twitter’s internal processes. They have suspended a half-dozen usernames from the top 100 brands, and another 14 usernames will be released if Twitter bulk-releases inactive accounts as it has said it plans to do.

Is it enough?

There is, however, room for improvement. Twitter currently does not have a stated remedy for squatters who register a valuable brand name, have been active within the last six months, but are not impersonating the corporation that owns the brand or attempting to sell the name. While Twitter reserves the right to reclaim these names, it would benefit users if Twitter posted a clear policy of when and under what conditions it will reclaim those usernames. To date, Twitter has avoided Twittersquatting-related litigation (one case settled after Twitter transferred ownership of the username), but it’s not clear that the new rules will fully satisfy trademark owners, or what courts will do if asked to resolve a Twittersquatting dispute.

By Kyle Barnett and Gavin Snyder.

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