Facebook's New Username Feature Raises Trademark Issues
If you've logged into your Facebook account within the last 48 hours or so, chances are you've already seen and read the following message:
Starting on Friday, June 12th, at 9:01pm in your time zone, you'll be able to choose a username for your Facebook account to easily direct friends, family, and coworkers to your profile. Check out the Facebook Blog for more information or send yourself an email with the details.
What this means is that instead of the randomly assigned digital number that previously designated a Facebook user's home page, their chosen name will become part of the URL, making it easier for anyone to search not only on Facebook, but also through Google and other search engines.
A welcome initiative, to say the least, but as explained below by two intellectual property attorneys from Morrison & Foerster, LLP, Facebook's move raises some interesting trademark issues for brand owners. Chief among them, according to Morrison & Foerster attorneys, is the prospect that cyber-squatters may be able to register business names for their own use, particularly as profile names are being handed out on first-come, first-served basis.
Morrison & Foerster attorneys Lynn Humphreys and Cathleen Stadecker note that companies or groups with trademarked names can block squatters and interlopers from using their brands by following online registration protocols that Facebook has set up - though they caution, "It remains to be seen exactly how Facebook will evaluate the validity of particular requests for protection."
The attorneys also point out that Facebook has "explicitly reserved the right to remove and/or reclaim any user name at any time, for any reason." All well and good, but the lawyers add it remains unclear "how individual infringement claims relating to user names will be processed and resolved."
And while Facebook has a policy in place that user names cannot be transferred or sold, as often happens with online domain names, "The system may still be abused by users who select names that potentially infringe on trademark rights."
In short, the two attorneys note that under Facebook's new profile options, what's in a name may not be so simple as what's in a number.