Thursday, 5th July, 2012

Social squatters

Many businesses are already aware there is an established dispute resolution procedure for disputes concerning domain names.

For example, if a 'cyber-squatter' tries to register your brand name as a domain name, a complaint can be made under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). 

But what if the dispute isn't about a domain name? What if you realise a third party has registered your brand name on a social media site, like Twitter or Facebook?

There is no established procedure for name-squatting on social media sites in the same way there is for domain names. However, this doesn't mean that you need to give up all hope of getting rid of the 'social squatter'.

What's the problem?

Most social media sites allow names or 'handles' to be registered on a first-come, first-served basis. If you're not quick enough, you could find that your brand name has already been taken.

In some cases, another user may have registered a handle that you want to use for your brand (such as @whittakersnz on Twitter or www.facebook.com/AirNewZealand).  In other cases, a user may be actively pretending to be connected to your company and causing harm to your brand.

Often, it's not clear who is behind the registration. It could be an anonymous user, who is only recognisable by their online name. You might not know where the user is based, which could lead to further problems. How do you contact them? Is what they are doing against the law?

What can you do about it?

If you come across someone using your brand on a social media site without your permission, it can be difficult to know what to do about it. You may not know if you have a good case to stop them using your brand name and you may be concerned about legal costs.

However, stopping the squatter doesn't necessarily need to involve expensive and time-consuming legal action.

Often, one of the best approaches is to contact the social media sites themselves and request that the problematic content is removed.

In most cases, squatting on a brand's name or impersonating a brand will be a breach of the terms and conditions of the website. This means it can be quite easy to get the content you don't like taken down.

Many websites also have a specific mechanism in place which allows brand owners or their representatives to report infringing content. For example, Twitter and Facebook both have intellectual property violation forms, which allow brand owners to detail their complaint, explain what content they object to and why and list any relevant intellectual property rights (such as trade mark registrations) that they own.

Is it effective?

Contacting the social media websites directly is usually an effective and inexpensive way to proceed. It also allows content to be removed or clarified, even if not directly disparaging of your brand.

When an intellectual property violation form is submitted on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, they will consider the complaint and, in many cases, remove the username or content that is objected to within days.

For example, in 2011 the parody Twitter account @shippamspaste became an overnight sensation, after a 'bored intern' began sending enthusiastic tweets about the virtues of the brand's fish paste, in a mockery of the way that many brands choose to engage with social media. After the real owners of the brand contacted Twitter and complained, the owner of the account was forced to include a clear disclaimer that it was a parody account and not connected to the real Shippams Paste in any way. Once the ruse was blown, the tweeting stopped.

In other cases, Facebook vanity URLs (such as www.facebook.com/username) have been removed where there is evidence the vanity URL is a trade-marked term.

Tips

  • To avoid many of these problems, it pays to pro-actively register your brand name on social media sites, so no-one else can use it.
  • Keep an eye out for mentions of your brand on social media sites, so that you're aware if a problem does surface.
  • Consider registering your brand as a trade mark, if you haven't already. It will usually be much easier to convince a website to remove content if you can clearly demonstrate that you own relevant intellectual property rights.
An edited version of this column was published in NZ Marketing, July/August 2012.