When lowbrow comedian Tom Green called on his legion of Web show fans to help him convince a Humber College interactive multimedia professor with the same name to hand over his Twitter account (@tomgreen), he didn’t count on a fight.
But Prof. Tom Green not only had the Twitter account first, he had the name first because he is older, he tells ITBusiness.ca in a phone interview. He never planned to hand over his account to the comedian (who uses the handle @tomgreenlive) and at first tried to ignore all the fan requests that he do so, but Green got fed up when some fans became offensive last November.
“Some of his followers are a little bit weird,” Prof. Green says. “It started to get abusive and they were calling me a dick and stuff like that.”
Prof. Green called on his peers in the Web community to appeal to the comedian to back off on the campaign. In a private Twitter message, he asked the comedian to call off the dogs, but he never got a response. So Prof. Green started a hash-tag thread #RealTomGreen and started flooding it with jokes normally reserved for actor Chuck Norris. The unconventional gambit seemed to work, and requests for him to sacrifice his well-deserved Twitter account handle subsided.
“Now I’m starting to get apologies,” Prof. Green says. “There is still some confusion out there, but it doesn’t bother me.”
Prof. Green’s battle with the crude comedian is just one example of the latest claim to a name issues to hit the Internet. Many are familiar with the shortage of good Web site addresses, especially dot-com domains. Now that same phenomenon is coming to popular social networks where personalized Twitter account names or Facebook Page URLs are becoming a scarce commodity.
Businesses or individuals that decide to sign on to social media services in some cases find that an impersonator is already using their Twitter account, or some other person with no legitimate claim to the trademark has control of the user handle. It’s not very easy to reclaim that handle, according to Matthew Asbell, an associate with Ladas & Parry LLP in New York.
“Twitter has proved to be a valuable marketing tool, and businesses are utilizing it, but not many people want to spend hundreds of thousands on litigation,” he says. “We don’t have the same procedures in place for addressing social media usage as we do with domain name resolution.”
Domain name authorities have a dispute resolution process involving a panel to resolve circumstances when more than one party lays claim to the same Web address. But social networks like Twitter don’t offer as clear a process.
“When they were starting to get really popular they didn’t have a legal team that focused on IP. They weren’t equipped to address things as reasonably as they are now,” Asbell says. “I’m finidng they aren’t super-responsive now, but at least somewhat responsive.”
Twitter declined an interview for this story, but its trademark policy guidelines are available on its Web site. It requires that account holders post a status update at least once every six months to stay active. It also says that using trademark-protected materials to mislead or confuse others isn’t allowed, and an account may be suspended as a result. Impersonation of another person or brand isn’t allowed, but a parody or fan account is.
Prof. Green was never tempted to use his own account name to cause any confusion among the comedian’s fan base, he says. “It’s taken me 10 years to develop my presence in the Web community, so I just stay out of any flame war.”
The author is very active on Twitter and will redirect fans of the comedian to the correct Twitter account whenever he thinks there may be confusion.
As Twitter rose in popularity and celebrities started using the service to communicate with fans, several high-profile cases of impersonation were reported on by media. In 2009, St. Louis Cardinal’s manager Tony La Russa sued the San Francisco-based company after he discovered someone using Twitter with his name, and emulating his sense of humour. La Russa settled with Twitter and had the account transferred to him.
But while the legal play worked, it also had some unintended consequences, Asbell says. After the case was publicized, several similar La Russa accounts with slight variations on the name were set up by other Twitter users.
The Twitter community “doesn’t take very well to legal manovers. Users just feel that it’s business trying to come in there and take what they want,” he says. Twitter has since created “Verified Accounts” in which celebrities will receive authentication from Twitter and have a blue badge displayed on their profile, so other users know it is the real person behind the keyboard.
Rather than a lawsuit, companies looking to reclaim an expired Twitter account handle might have the best luck with becoming a paying customer of Twitter. While the social network has been debating for years whether to release a multitude of expired account handles to be registered by others, clients might find accessing those tags a bit easier. Twitter offers paid-for Promoted Accounts and Promoted Tweets.
“If you’re an advertiser on Twitter, they are more willing to transfer over to you accounts that are suspended,” Asbell says. “Right now, it’s the easiest way to do it. It’s far less costly to do that than to take up litigation against them.”
Other than that, there is not much a company can do to claim a Twitter account that is being actively used by another user in a fashion that doesn’t violate trademark. In the case of comedian Tom Green, even if he’d convinced the professor to give up his Twitter handle, there is no method on Twitter for one user to transfer their handle to another. This eliminates motivations for cybersquatters to register Twitter accounts in hopes of selling them.
Though Prof. Green did offer the comedian a deal – he’d give up the Twitter handle in exchange for the TomGreen.com domain. He never heard back from Green with a response. So he continues to maintain his Twitter account, even if the odd fan still does pester him.
“You have to consider the nature of his fan base. They’ve never had an original thought in their lives,” he says.