[although somewhat more controversial I look forward to seeing the
followup conversation - once again refer to the article itself for the
inline links - @samj]

"Twitter" Trademark in Trouble Too

Yesterday I apparently stuck a nerve in revealing Twitter's "Tweet"
Trademark Torpedoed. The follow up commentary both on this blog and on
Twitter itself was interesting and insightful, revealing that in
addition to likely losing "tweet" (assuming you accept that it was
ever theirs to lose) the recently registered Twitter trademark itself
(#77166246) and pending registrations for the Twitter logo (#77721757,
#77721751) are also on very shaky ground.

Trademarks 101

Before we get into details as to how this could happen lt's start with
some background. A trademark is one of three main types of
intellectual property (the others being copyrights and patents) in
which society grants a monopoly over a "source identifier" (e.g. a
word, logo, scent, etc.) in return for being given some guarantee of
quality (e.g. I know what I'm getting when I buy a bottle of black
liquid bearing the Coke® branding). Anybody can claim to have a
trademark but generally they are registered which makes the process of
enforcing the mark much easier. The registration process itself is
thus more of a sanity check - making sure everything is in order, fees
are paid, the mark is not obviously broken (that is, unable to
function as a source identifier) and perhaps most importantly, that it
doesn't clash with other marks already issued.

Trademarks are also jurisdictional in that they apply to a given
territory (typically a country but also US states) but to make things
easier it's possible to use the Madrid Protocol to extend a valid
trademark in one territory to any number of others (including the EU
which is known as a "Community Trademark"). Of course if the first
trademark fails (within a certain period of time) then those dependent
on it are also jeopardised. Twitter have also filed applications using
this process.

Moving right along, there are a number of different types of
trademarks, starting with the strongest and working back:

    * Fanciful marks are created specifically to be trademarks (e.g.
Kodak) - these are the strongest of all marks.
    * Arbitrary marks have a meaning but not in the context in which
they are used as a trademark. We all know what an apple is but when
used in the context of computers it is meaningless (which is how Apple
Computer is protected, though they did get in trouble when they
started selling music and encroached on another trademark in the
process). Similarly, you can't trademark "yellow bananas" but you'd
probably get away with "blue bananas" or "cool bananas" because they
don't exist.
    * Suggestive marks hint at some quality or characteristic without
describing the product (e.g. Coppertone for sun-tan lotion)
    * Descriptive marks describe some quality or characteristic of the
product and are unregistrable in most trademark offices and
unprotectable in most courts. "Cloud computing" was found to be both
generic and descriptive by USPTO last year in denying Dell. Twitter is
likely considered a descriptive trademark (but one could argue it's
now also generic).
    * Generic marks cannot be protected as the name of a product or
service cannot function as a source identifier (e.g. Apple in the
context of fruits, but not in the context of computers and music)

Twitter's off to a bad start already in their selection of names -
while Google is a deliberate misspelling of the word googol
(suggesting the enormous number of items indexed), the English word
twitter has a well established meaning that relates directly to the
service Twitter, Inc. provides. It's the best part of 1,000 years old
too, derived around 1325–75 from ME twiteren (v.); akin to G

    - verb (used without object)

        1. to utter a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a
        2. to talk lightly and rapidly, esp. of trivial matters;
        3. to titter, giggle.
        4. to tremble with excitement or the like; be in a flutter.

    - verb (used with object)

        5. to express or utter by twittering.

    - noun

        6. an act of twittering.
        7. a twittering sound.
        8. a state of tremulous excitement.

Although the primary meaning people associate these days is that of a
bird, it cannot be denied that "twitter" also means "to talk lightly
and rapidly, esp. of trivial matters; chatter". The fact it is now
done over the Internet matters not in the same way that one can "talk"
or "chat" over it (and telephones for that matter) despite the
technology not existing when the words were conceived. Had "twitter"
have tried to obtain a monopoly over a more common words like
"chatter" and "chat" there'd have been hell to pay, but that's not to
say they should get away with it now.

Let's leave the definition at that for now as twitter have managed to
secure registration of their trademark (which does not imply that it
is enforceable). The point is that this is the weakest type of
trademark already and some (including myself) would argue that it a)
should never have been allowed and b) will be impossible to enforce.
To make matters worse, Twitter itself has gained an entry in the
dictionary as both a noun ("a website where people can post short
messages about their current activities") and a verb ("to write short
messages on the Twitter website") as well as the AP Sytlebook for good
measure. This could constitute "academic credability" or "trademark
kryptonite" depending how you look at it.


This brings us to the more pertinent point, trademark enforcement,
which can essentially be summed up as "use it or lose it". As at today
I have not been able to find any reference whatsoever, anywhere on
twitter.com, to any trademark rights claimed by Twitter, Inc. Sure
they assert copyright ("© 2009 Twitter") but that's something
different altogether - I have never seen this before and to be honest
I can't believe my eyes. I expect they will fix this promptly in the
wake of this post by sprinking disclaimers and [registered®] trademark
(TM) and servicemark (SM) symbols everywhere, but the Internet Archive
never lies so once again it's likely too little too late. If you don't
tell someone it's a trademark then how are they supposed to avoid
infringing it?

Terms of Service

The single reference to trademarks (but not "twitter" specifically) I
found was in the terms of service (which are commendably concise):

    We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses
or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.

That of course didn't stop them suspending @retweet shortly after
filing for the ill-fated "tweet" trademark themselves, but that's
another matter altogether. The important point is that they don't
claim trademark rights and so far as I can tell, never have.


To rub salt in the (gaping) wound they (wait for it, are you sitting
down?) offer their high resolution logos for anyone to use with no
mention whatsoever as to how they should and shouldn't be used
("Download our logos") - a huge no-no for trademarks which must be
associated with some form of quality control. Again there is no
trademark claim, no ™ or ® symbols, and for the convenience of invited
infringers, no less than three different high quality source formats
(PNG, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop):

Then there's the advertising, oh the advertising. Apparently Twitter
HQ didn't get the memo about exercising extreme caution when using
your trademark; lest be the trademark holder who refers to her product
or service as a noun or a verb but Twitter does both, even in 3rd-
party advertisements (good luck trying to get an AdWords ad containing
the word "Google"):
Internal Misuse

Somebody from Adobe or Google please explain to Twitter why it's
important to educate users that they don't "google" or "photoshop",
rather "search using Google®" and "edit using Photoshop®". Here's some
more gems from the help section:

    * Now that you're twittering, find new friends or follow people
you already know to get their twitter updates too.
    * Wondering who sends tweets from your area?
    * @username + message directs a twitter at another person, and
causes your twitter to save in their "replies" tab.
    * FAV username marks a person's last twitter as a favorite.
    * People write short updates, often called "tweets" of 140
characters or fewer.
    * Tweets with @username elsewhere in the tweet are also collected
in your sidebar tab; tweets starting with @username are replies, and
tweets with @username elsewhere are considered mentions.
    * Can I edit a tweet once I post it?
    * What does RT, or retweet, mean? RT is short for retweet, and
indicates a re-posting of someone else's tweet. This isn't an official
Twitter command or feature, but people add RT somewhere in a tweet to
indicate that part of their tweet includes something they're re-
posting from another person's tweet, sometimes with a comment of their
own. Check out this great article on re-tweeting, written by a fellow
Twitter user, @ruhanirabin. <- FAIL x 7


According to this domain search there are currently 6,263 domains
using the word "twitter", almost all in connection with microblogging.
To put that number in perspective, if Twitter wanted to take action
against these registrants given current UDRP rates for a single
panelist we're talking $9,394,500 in filing fees alone (or around 1.5
billion nigerian naira if that's not illustrative enough for you).
That's not including the cost of preparing the filings,
representation, etc. that their lawyers (Fenwick & West LLP) would
likely charge them.

If you (like Doug Champigny) happen to be on the receiving end of one
of these letters recently you might just want to politely but firmly
point them at the UDRP and have them prove, among other things, that
you were acting in bad faith (don't bother coming crying to me if they
do though - this post is just one guy's opinion and IANAL remember ;).

I could go on but I think you get the picture - Twitter has done such
a poor job of protecting the Twitter trademark that they run the risk
of losing it forever and becoming a lawschool textbook example of what
not to do. There are already literally thousands of products and
services [ab]using their brand and while some have recently succombed
to the recent batch legal threats they may well have more trouble now
that people know their rights and the problem is being actively
discussed. Furthermore, were it not for being extremely permissive
with the Twitter brand from the outset they arguably would not have
had anywhere near as large a following as they do now. It is only with
the dedicated support of the users and developers they are actively
attacking that they have got as far as they have.

The Problem: A Microblogging Monopoly

Initially it was my position that Twitter had built their brand and
deserved to keep it, but that they had gone too far with "tweet". Then
in the process of writing this story I re-read the now infamous May
The Tweets Be With You post that prompted the USPTO to reject their
application hours later and it changed my mind too. Most of the media
coverage took the money quote out of context but here it is in its
entirity (emphasis mine):

    We have applied to trademark Tweet because it is clearly attached
to Twitter from a brand perspective but we have no intention of "going
after" the wonderful applications and services that use the word in
their name when associated with Twitter.

Do you see what's happening here? I can't believe I missed it on the
first pass. Twitter are happy for you to tweet to your heart's content
provided you use their service. That is, they realised that outside of
the network effects of having millions of users all they really do is
push 1's and 0's around (and poorly at that). They go on to say:

    However, if we come across a confusing or damaging project, the
recourse to act responsibly to protect both users and our brand is

Today's batch of microblogging clients are hard wired to Twitter's
servers and as a result (or vice versa) they have an effective
microblogging monopoly. Twitter, Inc has every reason to be happy with
that outcome and is naturally seeking to protect it - how better than
to have an officially sanctioned method with which to beat anyone who
dare stray from the path by allowing connections to competitors like
identi.ca? That's exactly what they mean with the "when associated
with Twitter" language above and by "confusing or damaging" they no
doubt mean "confusing or damaging [to Twitter, Inc]".

The Solution: Distributed Social Networking

Distributed social networking and open standards in general (in the
traditional rather than Microsoft sense) are set to change that, but
not if the language society uses (and has used for hundreds of years)
is granted under an official monopoly to Twitter, Inc - it's bad
enough that they effectively own the @ namespace when there are
existing open standards for it. Just imagine if email was a
centralised system and everything went through one [unreliable]
service - brings a new meaning to "email is down"! Well that's
Twitter's [now not so] secret strategy: to be the "pulse of the
planet" (their words, not mine).

Don't get me wrong - I think Twitter's great and will continue to
twitter and tweet as @samj so long as it's the best microblogging
platform around - but I don't want to be forced to use it because it's
the only one there is. Twitter, Inc had ample chance to secure
"twitter" as a trademark and so far as I am concerned they have long
since missed it (despite securing dubious and likely unenforceable
registrations). Now they need to play on a level playing field and
focus on being the best service there is.

Update: Before I get falsely accused of brand piracy let me clarify
one important point: so far as I am concerned while Twitter can do
what they like with their logo (despite continuing to give it away to
the entire Internet no strings attached), the words "twitter" and
"tweet" are fair game as they have been for the last 700+ years and
will be for the next 700. From now on "twitter" for me means "generic
microblog" and "tweet" means "microblog update".

If I had a product interesting enough for Twitter, Inc to send me one
of their infamous C&D letters I would waste no time whatsoever in
scanning it, posting it here and making fun of them for it. I'm no
thief but I am a fervent believer in open standards.

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