Trademark tiff is burning Twitter’s bridges

Tower Bridge, used under CC license from Flickr user slideshowbob

Tower Bridge, used under CC license from Flickr user slideshowbobA couple of years ago, developer and designer Tom Armitage set up a Twitter account for one of London’s most famous inanimate objects, Tower Bridge. The idea was to give this famous piece of architecture a little personality, through a mashup that broadcast a message every time the iconic bridge raised or lowered to let ships pass into the city. That was pretty much it: a Twitter bot. But it was a gentle reminder of the world working around us that made the account beloved among a certain group of users. In a way, it’s as if @towerbridge was the city’s heartbeat.

Over the weekend, however, Armitage discovered that ownership of the account had been unceremoniously stripped from him and handed over to Tower Bridge Exhibition, a company that runs events inside the bridge buildings. In a post on his blog, he briefly outlined what had happened.

The account has just been gazumped, and a little, talking part of the city has been killed… I’m more than a little furious; after all, all the URLs that link to it are now incorrect, all the lifts, all the (puppet-mastered) banter is gone. Cool URLs don’t change, and these have just gone. And in their place: marketing.

In truth, it turns out that miscommunication was to blame, at least in part. Armitage later discovered that he had received a message from Twitter telling him that he faced losing the account — he just didn’t see it. Without a response from him, and facing a request from somebody who claimed to be the rightful, trademarked owner of “Tower Bridge”, Twitter apparently decided to wipe the account clean and hand over ownership. Was it the right thing to do?

Twitter’s policy is fairly standard, and is used to protect individuals and businesses from having their identities hijacked — after all, there have been plenty of fake Twitter feeds, impersonations and unofficial accounts over the years, some of them libelous. In fact, a couple of years ago one enterprising developer even sold @cnnbrk to CNN, despite the fact that CNN could have simply lodged a trademark claim against him. There’s little suggestion that Twitter should do anything different when it comes to squatting or deliberately trying to pass off an unofficial account as the real thing.

But @towerbridge’s supporters argue that’s not what was going on here. There was no attempt to pretend that it was official, and they say the account could easily have tweaked the account to make it even more obvious.

Some of them focus on the idea of Twitter as a representative of The Man. British designer Andy Budd argues that a presumption of guilt marks a bad day for Twitter. Meanwhile, comics writer Warren Ellis says it’s a great example of conflict between the owners of a city and those who inhabit it. Others question the appropriateness of the original application. The BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones, for example, wonders whether the new owners of the account wiped Armitage’s work, and whether they realize they have removed something interesting and much-liked.

In fact, there’s also the question of whether the initial trademark claim itself was valid. According to the U.K. Intellectual Property Office, there are actually dozens of companies that have trademarked the name “Tower Bridge” in Britain across a number of different fields. They include an IT business, a scientific instrument company, a leather goods manufacturer, a spirits and wine company and a brand of tobacco. The company that took over the @towerbridge account hasn’t actually trademarked “Tower Bridge” at all, but “Tower Bridge Events” and “Tower Bridge Exhibition” and “Tower Bridge, the Venue.” That name has only been secured for particular activities, none of which seem to relate to the information the old @towerbridge used to provide.

From the outside, this is a storm in a thimble-sized teacup. But whether or not it was right to kick Armitage off, the whole episode points to several bigger questions that are worth considering. Does Twitter’s trademark policy work? Should it improve verification? And, above all, how much is it prepared to invest in protecting users of all stripes?

One major stumbling block here, as I see it, is that Twitter’s size and popularity is not yet commensurate with its income. The business has around 200 million users, huge media exposure, a staff of around 500 and substantial funding. Yet the company’s revenues are still small. Faced with an onslaught of legal challenges from trademark owners, it’s always going to be tempting to keep costs down and err on the side of the litigious business owner rather than the individual user.

Tower Bridge is just a tiny example of that — there are dozens of cases happening at any given time, whether it’s adulterous sportsmen trying to block Twitter users from talking about him, or local governments chasing their critics, or national administrations trying to discover details about controversial users. Giving more room to trademark owners might be selling out, but it’s also a sensible business decision — the trouble is, users don’t always see why they should be the ones losing out.

Photograph used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Flickr user Slideshow Bob


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