21 August 2009

Twitter Retries Registering Retweet

Hopefully you're not sick of hearing about Twitter, Inc's trademark woes (and yet another alliteration) because yes, they've been at it again.

Conceding that the USPTO has successfully torpedoed their trademark on "tweet" but otherwise undeterred they've just tried to lay claim to the more specific term "retweet" (#77804841). While admittedly more distinctive (and therefore less problematic from a legal point of view), let's not forget that they recently came under fire from developers for unjustly suspending retweet.com's @retweet account, having announced plans for an official retweet function of their own (more on Project Retweet at Mashable).

This functionality could well prove as important for microblogging as Google's PageRank did for Internet search and it's definitely not the sort of thing we want to have locked up with a single provider. The idea is that it provides a way to value a user's contribution based on how many people (and who) retweet a user's tweets (a TweetRank, for want of a better name).

So what's the problem with Twitter, Inc registering "retweet" as a trademark? It's not theirs to register, that's what. That's right, the "gesture and syntax of retweet was invented by users" and even Twitter's own web interface still lacks the very functionality they are trying to take control of (and will for weeks to come no less). The retweet "micro-convention" has been meticulously documented and extensively discussed by active twitterers (twits?) who have gone so far as to write an essay on retweeting etiquette. Nothing I have seen anywhere credits Twitter with the invention of the retweet (which according to Google Trends took off at the start of this year) and in my opinion asking the authorities to remove this term from the public lexicon is nothing short of highway robbery.

It's no secret they didn't come up with the idea either. Shooting themselves in the foot once again, Twitter's help pages (archived for posterity) define retweeting as follows (emphasis mine):
What does RT, or retweet mean?
RT is short for retweet, and indicates a re-posting of someone else's tweet. This isn't an official Twitter command or feature, but people add RT somewhere in a tweet to indicate that part of their tweet includes something they're re-posting from another person's tweet, sometimes with a comment of their own.Check out this great article on re-tweeting, written by a fellow Twitter user, @ruhanirabin.
So there you have it, even Twitter admit the idea isn't theirs, defining it as a verb (another sure fire way to destroy a trademark) and then referring to a user article for more information. Of course that won't stop them claiming it as their own now with a view to preventing competitors from delivering it themselves.

To put things in perspective that's about as reasonable as Google claiming ownership of our ideas because they're in their index.

Unfortunately though I have a sneaking suspicion that Twitter will get away with it this time unless we stand our ground now. ReTweet.com are in a particularly good position to prevent this from happening (they already claim trademark status over the word):
Retweet.com, the Retweet.com logo and other Mesiab Labs trademarks including service marks, and product and service names are Mesiab Labs trademarks or registered trademarks in the United States and in other countries (the "Mesiab Labs Marks"). All other names and designs may be trademarks of their respective owners. Users may display or use the Retweet.com and Mesiab Labs Marks only in accordance with Mesiab Labs Trademark Use Guidelines. 
Here's hoping they (or one of the many other retweet sites) file an opposition to the trademark when the appropriate time comes.


  1. You don't seem to understand what a trademark is or what trademark registration means. When someone files an application to register a trademark, they are not "asking the authorities to remove this term from the public lexicon." For example, Apple Computer, Inc. owns a registration for APPLE, but do you think the word has been removed from the public lexicon? You really shouldn't be writing about legal issues if you don't understand them. Your misinformation does harm to Twitter's reputation.

  2. @AC: Thanks for sharing. IMO (albeit based on fairly extensive research) the public invented the term [re]tweet and now Twitter is laying claim to it because it is associated with their service. Had *they* have driven the adoption *and* defended the mark then fair enough. So far as I am concerned this is still removing it from the public lexicon (at least in this context). Sure IANAL but that doesn't mean I have to hold my ankles whenever some company decides we need to be punk'd.

  3. This is a comment to the previous Anonymous message. It is being stated in related articles linking to this one, that Retweet.com's new owners stand to risk a lawsuit if Twitter unjustly gains the trademark retweet. To that end, Twitter can then legally serve anyone using the term retweet in their domain names for a term that was created in the public domain. The reference to the term Apple in your example is not even close to the unique qualities of the public domain term retweet. If Twitter is granted the trademark, then they can in effect remove from the public lexicon by not allowing the public to user the term in domains, PPC ads etc. Perhaps you yourself need to be better prepared before you go commenting on legal issues you yourself do not even fully understand.


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