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Social Media Law for Business: Trademark Protections from Brandjacking and Cybersquatting in Social Networks

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Robert McHale provides tips to help protect your business’s social network usernames, handles and domain names from brandjackers and cybersquatters.

A company's most valuable commercial asset is often its brand. Further, a brand's ability to communicate directly with its customers is crucial in today's social business climate. Controlling your business's social network usernames, handles and domain names is therefore critical. After all, you do not want your company's image (or message) to be hijacked by spammers, brandjackers, cybersquatters, impersonators, or competitors.

Generally speaking, "brandjacking" (a clever neologism combining the words "brand" and "hijacking") is the action of acquiring or assuming the online identity of another for purposes of capturing that person's or business's brand equity.

Brandjackers operate in a variety of ways, usually by attempting to leverage the reputation of their target for their own gain, or working to destroy the reputation of their target for malicious reasons. Regardless of the brandjacker's motive (be it financial or otherwise), the effect on the victim's brand can be quite devastating, causing significant PR and financial damage, including lost clients, sales, and market share (and potential stock price plummet for public companies), and an erosion of a brand's reputation and goodwill.

Cybersquatting, or domain squatting, is a similar tactic employed to misappropriate another's brand equity. Cybersquatting is usually defined as the registering, trafficking in, or using a domain name with bad faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. Cybersquatting can also wreak havoc on a company looking to "own" a certain domain (in connection with a new product release, for example) only to find that the domain is already being "squatted" upon (and being ransomed by the cybersquatter).

Companies that find themselves the victim of trademark infringements on social media sites—or that wish to take proactive steps to avoid such infringements before they occur—have a number of weapons to protect their brand.

While the leading social networking sites offer some brand protection remedies, they are limited. It is important that you obtain branded accounts (with a reasonable number of username variants) before a would-be infringer beats you to the punch.

Companies who are the victims of username jacking should also consider pursuing claims for trademark infringement, unfair competition, false designation of origin, and cybersquatting.

The below Figure summarizes practical steps companies should consider to protect their brands.

The contents of this article are derived from Chapter 8: Trademark Protections from Brandjacking and Cybersquatting in Social Networks from Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business. The article is also part of a series in which author and attorney, Robert McHale, provides practical Social Media Dos and Don'ts for companies to consider when using social media for business.

Robert McHale, Esq. is the founding partner of R | McHale Law, a full-service law firm whose corporate practice represents clients on a wide variety of IT and intellectual property law matters, including privacy and data security, copyright, trademark, licensing, and other proprietary protections. He may be contacted at: robert.mchale@rmchale.com.

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