Twitter Stole My [username] At The Behest of A Corporation (& why this is a non-story)

The front page of Hacker News is buzzing about the Pitchfork.Tumblr story (great insights from Shopify & Weebly), which goes something like this:

Tumbledore creates, kinda uses it for a while before Pitchfork asks/tells Tumblr to take it back, which they do.

Yes, it was a classic dick move by Pitchfork & Tumblr's people (and they even wrote that great review of my band back in 08) and they ought to have handled the entire ordeal much better, but aside from failing Wheaton's Law, they behaved reasonably given their Terms of Service (emphasis mine):

Subscriber represents, warrants and agrees that it will not contribute any Subscriber Content that (a) infringes, violates or otherwise interferes with any copyright or trademark of another party […] Tumblr reserves the right to remove any Subscriber Content from the Site, suspend or terminate Subscriber’s right to use the Services at any time, or pursue any other remedy or relief available to Tumblr and/or the Site under equity or law, for any reason (including, but not limited to, upon receipt of claims or allegations from third parties or authorities relating to such Subscriber Content or if Tumblr is concerned that Subscriber may have breached the immediately preceding sentence), or for no reason at all.

I'm just as guilty of not reading these damned things, but the fact of the matter is, when tumbledore signed up for Tumblr, he agreed to the above and denied himself any ownership of that subdomain.  It brings up an interesting debate about what we've come to (and ought to) expect from services that we generate mountains of free content for.

I can empathize with Tumbledore, as I had the same thing happen to me with my Twitter account back in 2008, when they confiscated @digg from me.  Yes, I'd registered it along with @reddit back before everyone thought Twitter was the bee's knees -- furthermore, I'd even plugged in the digg RSS feed so it was auto-tweeting digg's top links.

More than a few redditors had emailed asking why I wasn't doing something sneakier and while it had crossed my mind, I was content to let to competing products exist and just let users decide.  If there can be google and yahoo, why not reddit and digg?

And then I got this email:

Hi There,

We've received a note from Digg regarding your Twitter account. It has come to our attention that your Twitter account:

is in violation of our Terms of Service, specifically article 6 of the General Conditions, which mentions trademark infringement:

6. We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.

To settle this issue we've changed the user name to "Digg_News" in the full name and user name fields in order to eliminate confusion. You can change your user name to something else if you'd like, but please honor the Terms of Service accordingly:

1. Visit
2. Edit the Full Name and Username fields
3. Click "Save"

We appreciate your cooperation in this matter.


Was it handled poorly? Sure.  But I felt then -- and still feel now -- that it was perfectly within Twitter's rights to gank the name back because that was the agreement I signed up to when I created the account (of course I didn't read the Terms of Service).  Admittedly, it seems reasonable to thwart brand squatters from sitting on [brand name X] every time a new startup is launched.  But choosing when to pull the trigger on someone who is genuinely using a trademarked username for something benign (or totally unrelated in pitchfork's case) is much less black & white.

4 responses
It's interesting that Twitter took action in your case. I attempted to gain control of @zoto by emailing the good folks at Twitter mentioning we owned that registered trademark. They rebuffed me saying the account wasn't trying to impersonate the corporation Zoto, so there wasn't anything they could (or would) do. The account remains inactive today. No clue what my real rights are in this matter.
Zoto, it's not a straightforward answer (and this comment is not legal advice). The real issue is whether there's a likelihood of confusion between the trademarked source and the similarly-named entity. Courts use factors like similarity of names, whether entities are competitors, evidence of confusion among customers, proximity of the marks in the marketplace, intent of the non-registered user, etc.

Of course, if Twitter refuses to take action and you don't want litigation, your options are limited.

IANAL, but as I understand it, the difference is that Digg is probably trademarkable (is that even a word?) where as pitchfork is absolutely not - it's a common word in everyday use. Now, "Pitchfork Media" might be trademarked but that doesn't mean that they can claim that pitchfork is also their trademark.

What if I had another company Pitchfork World Wide Domination Inc., which is much larger than Pitchfork Media. Do I then get to kick them out and take it for myself?

What it I have a smaller company, Pitchfork Garden Implements Inc., do I have to surrender it to Pitchfork Media when they ask for it.

Seems like a slippery slope to me.

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