Kicking out “cybersquatters” who camp out on domains that are trademarked by others isn’t too tough anymore; the process has become fairly streamlined and straightforward over the years. But evicting a “twittersquatter” that’s grabbed your company’s name may prove to be a lot tougher. A new lawsuit filed by a company called Coventry First filed a lawsuit this week seeking to evict the anonymous twittersquatter who is critiquing the company with the @coventryfirst Twitter account, but it’s unlikely to succeed.
Coventry First is a player in the controversial “life settlement” industry, which involves purchasing life insurance policies and re-selling them to investor clients. The clients then pay the premiums, and then collect the money when the insured person dies. This puts life settlement companies and their clients in the awkward position of doing well when the insured people die sooner rather than later, and it’s that kind of incentive system that whoever owns the @coventryfirst Twitter account is clearly playing off. The anonymous account has produced only 14 tweets, like this one, which notes that “the faster people die the more coventry first profits! not even cig companies want their customers to die as fast.”
There have been very few legal disputes thus far about Twitter handles, although this isn’t the first. Baseball manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter after someone set up an account in his name and broadcast “derogatory and demeaning” status updates. That lawsuit went nowhere. Coventry First has wisely avoided suing Twitter, and instead has filed a John Doe lawsuit against whomever is controlling the @coventryfirst account, saying those persons are infringing Coventry’s trademark and breaking cyber-squatting laws.
Venkat Balasubramani, a Seattle internet lawyer who has written about this case, argues that it’s unlikely to succeed.
» Domain-squatters are sometimes financially motivated, but a “twittersquatter” has no such incentive–you can’t make money off grabbing someone else’s name on Twitter. Because there’s no commercial use, it will be tough to argue the twittersquatter is guilty of trademark infringement or unfair competition.
» The federal cyber-squatting law is clearly written to only apply to “second level” domain names–not user names offered by Twitter.
» Coventry could make a claim for dilution or tarnishment of their mark, but they’d have to prove their mark is “famous” before they could even proceed. “Good luck with that,” writes Balasubramani, who concludes the whole suit is a “drastic overreaction” by Coventry First, especially since the tiny account has all of 10 followers.
I contacted Coventry First to ask them why they felt this suit was necessary but haven’t yet heard back. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company won’t comment on specific accounts.
Twitter has sometimes been praised as a standout among tech companies in terms of protecting users’ anonymity and rights to free speech. However, the @coventryfirst account does seem like it may push the boundaries, because it seems to violate some of Twitter’s guidelines on accounts devoted to parody and commentary. One of those guidelines is to not take the exact name of the subject that you are commenting on, instead distinguishing the account with a qualifier like “not” or “fake,” as well as including a note in the “bio” line that distinguishes it from the subject.