Tech Tips: Avoiding Intellectual Property Issues on Twitter

May 15, 2012

5:00 pm

Startups use free advertising channels like social media to get the word out about their company, and their employees tend to be active and avid Twitter users.

So do the standard intellectual property rules apply to Twitter? After all, how much trouble can you get into with 140 characters? Answer: A lot.

You can even get into trouble based on how you set up a company or personal Twitter account and description before you send your first tweet. The law’s still gelling in this area, but here are 3 solid don’ts you can take to the bank:

1. Don’t set up account names and descriptions that might be confused with branded companies or their products and services. The same goes for famous people.

Twitter’s current policies state that it will investigate complaints and may shut an account down or transfer the Twitter handle to the holder of U.S. federal or international trademark registrations. It’s important to have a registered trademark before you ask Twitter to investigate an account, unless the name covers a federal agency or non-profit group, or unless someone is using an account for impersonation.

Here’s an example of a Lady Gaga fan account that may be a little confusing at first, but Charlie (@GagasUnicorns) sure seems to have done her best to make it clear that she’s a ravenous fan, not the Gaga herself (note the description of the day that Gaga responded to her tweet below).

Lady Gaga Fan

Charlie’s likely using an unauthorized photo of LG in Versace that may be copyrighted, but Gaga seems to be letting that one go.

Lady Gaga Twitter

2. Do the Twitter accounts stay, or do they go? Decide ahead of time who owns employee Twitter accounts that are used for business purposes and what happens to them if an employee leaves. Document that decision and communicate it to your employees.  There’s the famous story of Phonedog Noah, who left the mobile company he was paid to discuss and promote over social media. When he left, he took his Twitter handle and 17,000 followers with him. It got messy after that, and they went to court to fight over ownership of his Twitter followers.

3. Don’t tweet anything that infringes someone else’s IP. Materials attached to tweets may be protected by copyright or some other form of intellectual property right. This can include photos and articles, so check with the site policies, the author, or content owner before hitting the send button.

Twitter’s about sharing, but responsible sharing is best. Train the people who are responsible for taking care of your startup’s official twitter account so they are aware of this issue.

Copyright Infringement Tweet

Do you have weird IP questions related to use of Twitter? Feel free to contact me!


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Antigone is a recovering BIGLAW lawyer who is now the founder and CEO of Cloudigy Law. She is an unabashed technophile who loves her day job because it’s about 50% technology and 50% law. Follow Antigone on Twitter @antigonepeyton.