What is Social Squatting?

Sam Foster ⬥ 28 October

As the popularity of social media platforms increases and their numbers proliferate, attorneys are constantly trying to shut down usernames that harmfully infringe on brands or trademarks. Thanks to the variety of policies and procedures that exist from platform to platform, it is not a simple matter. Recently at an INTA event in San Francisco, the majority of the IP attorneys attending a panel on social media raised their hands when asked if they had attempted to take down an offending username in the last month. When prompted to keep their hands up if they were satisfied with the process, only a few hands remained in the air.

The task, however frustrating it may be, is an important one.

According to IP expert Steve Levy, Esq., social squatting is a form of impersonation/cybersquatting in which someone registers a publicly viewable username that incorporates a brand, trademark or personal name (or the misspelling thereof) in an attempt to capture traffic from a legitimate well-known entity.

What are a few of the reasons people squat on a social media username?

  • Spread false information
  • Execute phishing attempts or other fraudulent activity
  • Monetize famous brands by hosting ads that profit off of traffic that has been diverted from the target brand

To be clear, this type of infringement is different from being a fan or even a critic of a brand. There is a difference between creating a fan page or legitimate gripe page, handle, or other account and operating a social media username for profit or fraudulent purposes. The end goal of many fan pages or even gripe usernames is to communicate like or dislike of a brand, not simply to profit from the use of the brand, trademark or personal name; instead, it is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. If attorneys are not aware of this issue, PR nightmares can quickly pop up from overly aggressive enforcement.

Rather, social squatters are people like the folks behind the Instagram handle @virgin_uk, who promised 2 free tickets to the first 20,000 followers. The fake handle amassed nearly 10,000 followers, and tricked many people, including several people I know, before it was finally removed (actually, I get many tips about handle hijacks from friends thinking they’ve found themselves a deal). Fortunately, the infringing handle was removed before it could cause any significant harm to Virgin’s brand, but remains an example of how quickly these infringements can pop up.

Dozens of brands, from JetBlue to Ray-Ban have fallen victim to the same social squatting issue in the last few years. For the victimized brand, trademark or person, the loss of control over reputation ultimately reduces consumer trust, and those tasked with protecting brands and trademarks can become exasperated by this seemingly never-ending cycle of infringement and enforcement. As of now, trademark holders can address the social squatter through the particular social media platform’s policy and processes, but there is not an overarching and uniform social media dispute resolution process as there is for domain names (the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy and Uniform Rapid Suspension).

With the number of registered social media accounts growing into the billions, though, it’s likely that the problem of social squatting will not go away anytime soon.

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