How to protect your trademark online
In the quaint old offline world, things move slowly. If you have a good name for your business or your product, you know exactly what to do. You do a trademark search to make sure that no one else is using the name (at least within your industry), you add a the trademark symbol™ to your name, and if you really want to go the extra mile, you register your trademark so you can use the registered trademark symbol®. It was so simple back then, wasn't it? But it's a brave new online world now, and you have to worry about all sorts of other names, ranging from domain names to search keywords to social media IDs. How do you protect your trademark in all of those venues?
The first new danger posed by online technology to name owners was domain quatting. You're probably familiar with the practice of grabbing a nice Internet domain name in the hopes that someone will pay for it later. For names that are not trademarked, this is akin to a land rush. You'd be hard-pressed to find any one- or two-word names where someone hasn't staked their claim to the domains. But if someone grabs your trademarked name, especially if you have a registered trademark (because that serves as proof of when you protected it), you have legal protections against someone taking your domain name. The Truth in Domain Names Act makes squatting for trademarked names illegal and you can take steps to reclaim your trademarked domain name from squatters.
The next online danger came from search engines. The rules vary in different countries, but many search engines allow your competitors to buy your trademarked names in paid search, which I've covered previously. This is a constantly changing area, where regulation and litigation might keep things fluid for a while. So, for search, some search engines and some jurisdictions offer more protections than others.
The name land rush has moved in recent years from domains to social media, and businesses don't always have the same protections that you see elsewhere. Even though trademarks are regulated, there are no specific laws in most (all?) countries concerning social media names. If someone uses your trademark as their Twitter handle, you need to work with Twitter to get that corrected. Same for Facebook, YouTube, and any other social media service that you are using.
So, what do these services do for you?
Twitter's trademark policy offers trademark owners some protections, but they are all at Twitter's discretion. Twitter does not promise to release user names that match your trademarks just because they are trademarked. Twitter might do that, but they might also decide that there is no real confusion or that no harm is being done because the name is being used in a way that is not directed against the trademark owner. From my experience, major brands are much more likely to get what they want than small companies with a lesser-known trademark.
I have less experience working with Facebook, although some have told me that Facebook's policy is similar to Twitter's and YouTube's. All I could find from Facebook in their terms and conditions was this line:<blockquote>If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user's actual name).</blockquote>
If anyone has had an experience on trademark reclamation with Facebook or can point us to any more information, please let loose in the comments.
Now, who can guess the best approach to policing your trademark? Yes, it's to beat the squatters to the name grab, which means staying alert to every new venue that might requires you reserving your name. So, if you're keeping score at home, Google+ is adding brand pages real soon now, so be ready to jump in the moment you can.