Twitter Squatters: What are you doing?

Twitter is a new Internet social networking phenomenon. It is a “service for friends, family, and co-workers, to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” I have not yet jumped onto the Twitter bandwagon, but perhaps I should. At the very least, I should register my Twitter identity if I want to ensure that it will not be lost to a squatter or a rival in the future.

Twitter squatting occurs when users register for Twitter identities, not for their own use, but to reap a profit from an identity that they predict will be highly sought-after in the future. Twitter squatting seems to be a bit reminiscent of the domain names scam of the late 1990s to early 2000s. This was a time when opportunists reaped significant profits by registering prominent brand names as Internet domains and re-selling them to the trade-mark owning company. For example, back in 2000, when Citibank merged with Travelers, Renata McGriff took the opportunity to grab the domain name citigroup.com and proceeded to make $270,000.

According to this article, Coca-Cola and Nike are two of many companies that are victims of Twitter squatting. A search for either name returns a significant number of unofficial Twitter accounts. In fact, Coca-Cola had to jump through a few hoops to gain possession of the “CocaCola” identity. The company first had to complain to Twitter, who then suspended the CocaCola ID and handed it back. What is troubling is that it seems like there is little that brand owners can do when it comes to Twitter squatters. Frances Drummond, a Freehills Partner specializing in intellectual property commented that unless a squatter is using their Twitter identity to masquerade as that brand or sell products using that brand, brand owners are relatively powerless. Whereas domain names require registration details, the inherent anonymity of Twitter provides a mask for those who might want to hijack the brand.

Of course, it is no surprise then that Twitter squatting has become a bit of a lucrative business. Tweexchange.com now offers a central marketplace for Twitter squatters to hawk all the Twitter identities they have obtained. For example, the Twitter identity “styleshop” is going for the price of $300 and according to this article, CNN was recently forced to acquire the Twitter identity “CNNbrk” from owner James Cox.

On one hand, Twitter squatters may pose a risk to brand owners. On the other hand, perhaps Twitter squatting might not be so bad when we look at other traditional property law concepts. In property law, squatting can be described as the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use. Through the process of adverse possession, a squatter may be able to acquire the real property title of the rightful owner by holding property in a manner that conflicts with the true owner’s rights for a specified period of time. One of the rationales behind adverse possession is an efficiency argument. That is, the possibility of adverse possession encourages efficient use of land and natural resources. In a similarl context, Twitter squatting – while inconvenient and annoying for legitimate brand owners – may also encourage efficiency. If the company does not have enough preparation or foresight to secure a Twitter identity, then someone else will. Looking at the Coca Cola example as mentioned previously, it is hard to fathom that such a big company with so many resources devoted to market presence neglected to grab the CocaCola Twitter identity when it was available. All this is to say that companies need to be able to evolve and adapt and be cognizant of Internet phenomena or they might just end up one step behind.

One Comment
  1. Twitter has been around for three years. Until six or eight months ago, it was just a toy that few people used. Basically just one of the thousands of social networks that litter the web. Setting up an account and maintaining a presence there even just a year ago would have been kind of silly for Coke. In a sense, the squatters do the big companies a service. If we assume that a person could get away with using a trademark to publish a feed *about* the company (without pretending to be the company), then many trademarks might end up getting taken on fledgling networks before most people are aware that they’re on the upswing. Squatters on the other hand might put time and effort into securing these names on hundreds of beginning networks on the off-chance that network will get bigger. When it does, they’ve protected the brand from the “justified infringer” and the company pays for the name (but only on those networks where it is worthwhile).

    An idea just popped into my head: create a company that mediates between networks and corporations. Corporations agree in advance to a price for names they’re interested in (perhaps based on the size of the network). New networks reserve names on the list and grant corporations an option to purchase the names at the agreed upon price if they’re successful. As a brand new network, you’d be silly not to participate. Then companies can just wait and see what Ashton Kutcher does.

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