Poor Form From Startups: “The Take-Back�

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Someone is holding the Twitter handle “Geico� for ransom.

While this is an anomaly, it highlights an important issue and increasingly common occurrence that I strongly oppose: Certain web companies have assumed the misguided practice of repossessing user names from individuals (who originally signed up for them) and then re-gifting those names to “more powerful� users (names like Sony, Apple, or celebrities) who are theoretically the rightful owners.

First, possession of a name is not the same as a misrepresentation. Just because I have the name Apple, doesn’t mean I am a gold digger after a free iPhone. Understandably, a good case can be made that someone using Twitter with the handle Barackobama in a slanderous way. They may deserve to have it repossessed – but even this is subject to debate.

Second, while certain companies/brands do have trademarked names, where does the limit of the trademark end? (I am actually curious from a legal standpoint). Can a company like Sony claim infringement over a domain like Ilovesony.com, or only sony.com? Also, why then are new web startups not legally bound to reserve or block trademarked names from being registered? Why give the option at all?

Back to the Twitter case. Twitter is a service that is starting to find its own among brands, who Tweet product updates or news. However, brands are only now beginning to see the value in Twitter and thus are ‘late to dance’ in term of laying claim to their handles. The problem recently is that certain handles, such as Geico, have been taken by early adopters. Some are simply taken by opportunists (squatters is such an ugly term) who hope to make money at a later date, akin to the early days of domain names. However for the most part, early adopters are either brand fanatics or have some personal reason they choose the name they did. I find it a horrendous practice that startups, who are themselves at fault for not having thought this through, should so quickly bend over backwards for brands and not ‘go to bat’ for their users.

I would offer the following as advice to all new startups:

1) Set aside the names of key brands by getting a list of the Fortune 500, trademarked names and relevant tech brands (Techcrunch for example). Have a verified representative call you (hmm…charge brands for names…interesting!)

2) In conjunction with the above, state in an obvious area that choosing a name that competes with a known product, company or service could result in the necessity of changing usernames at a future date

Other thoughts:

Does this notion of name ownership carry over to people names? Can a celebrity name be trade marked? Well, yes. Remember the Outkast song, Rosa Parks? Makes me wonder if I should trademark Sam Huleatt? Personally, I’m lucky to have a strange last name that is almost always available when I register (say for Gmail or Facebook), but even among my immediately family there is some tension over my always getting “shuleattâ€� when we have a Susan and Sarah as well. After all, who wants to be shuleatt1, right?

People who follow this blog know that I have created several brand pages in Facebook. I’ll save more analysis on that and how it relates for another post…

Also, if a company like Sony can trademark and dictate the context in which its name is used, why can it not force Google to show certain webpages that are officially associated with the brand as the first 10 pages of results? If so, does the Google algorithm have an Achilles Heel?


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