The hot news recently about Twitter is how “uncomfortable” it is becoming with third parties using the word “tweet” in their user interfaces. TechCrunch cites a snippet of a email conversation between Twitter and a third-party developer, and how Twitter is trying to protect its intellectual property.
Twitter, Inc is uncomfortable with the use of the word Tweet (our trademark) and the similarity in your UI and our own. How can we go about having you change your UI to better differentiate your offering from our own?
You might recall how this had likewise been a concern by Google, Inc., when it enforced its trademark by trying to prevent people from using the term as a verb meaning “to search.” Or perhaps you would also recall how WordPress is likewise trying to protect its trademark by asking people not to use “wordpress” in their domains or business names.
However, “Google” and “WordPress” are not common words. They are brands coined by the services’ respective creators. In the case of “tweet,” one’s first impression might be of astonishment at how a common word such as Tweet would be trademarked by a company. Note that Twitter, Inc., has applied for a trademark with the USPTO last April 19, 2009.
This is not uncommon, though. Take for instance the trademarks held by Apple, Inc. for several common words in the English language, like Leopard, Panther, Tiger, Cocoa, Sand, Shuffle, and even Apple, itself. I’m not a lawyer, but in the course of my working in the IT industry, I’ve encountered trademark and patent applications, and I do realize that a trademark does not only constitute the name, but rather also the appearance of the name or logo, down to the very specific colors (i.e., Pantone number), shapes, and the like.
A trademark or trade mark, identified by the symbols ™ (not yet registered) and ® (registered), is a distinctive sign or indicator used by an individual, business organization, or other legal entity to identify that the products or services to consumers with which the trademark appears originate from a unique source, and to distinguish its products or services from those of other entities. -Wikipedia
I believe the context here is that Twitter, Inc. is trying to ask third party developers to cease from using the word Tweet in conjunction with making their user interface or appearance similar to that of Twitter’s. This, after all, might be confusing. Users of the third party services might confuse the service to be internal to Twitter. And whatever faults they might find in it could be attributed to Twitter, and dilute the image of Twitter, Inc.’s brand. Likewise, the third parties could be unduly profiting from appearing like Twitter, and using the trademarked Tweet word in the context of an application with a UI similar to twitter.com.
And so, per se, Twitter, Inc. might not necessarily be doing bad with enforcing their trademark. They explain it, in brief, in a recent blog post.
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. In fact, we encourage the use of the word Tweet. However, if we come across a confusing or damaging project, the recourse to act responsibly to protect both users and our brand is important.
But there are other implications.
The bigger question here is how this enforcing of their Tweet trademark would affect their image. Twitter has grown in popularity, user-base and authority from its humble beginnings. Much like Google, Twitter has grown to become today’s It application, the poster-boy of social media, the go-to site for all things cool.
Has Twitter’s head grown bloated from all this popularity? Would it have thought of enforcing its trademark if it were still just a small startup with only a couple of thousand users?
Come to think of it, using the word “tweet” in the context of sending messages, short status updates, links and even grassroots news reporting, Twitter stands a chance of becoming ingrained in popular culture as yet another IT company that has earned its own dictionary word (like Google), or at least added to the definition of an existing one. Say “tweet” and you don’t think of birds chirping. Say “tweet” and you think of posting a message or status update 140 characters or less.
I don’t think Twitter intended this piece of information to leak out into the public. It’s supposedly private communication between the folks from Twitter and those from the developers’ side. And so perhaps there’s no aggressive enforcement of their Tweet trademark in public. It looks like they’re just asking nicely. But of course, public perception is, well, in the public eye. And TechCrunch’s making a big fuss out of it (in the usual TechCrunch fashion) has brought this issue to light. And in this regard, Twitter has to make the most of it, and be the good guys we think them to be.
Image credit: flickr/tamerkoseli