from the bears-win! dept
With the trademarking of hashtags now in full swing, it’s about time some light was shone on exactly what type of trademarks are granted on them. The trademarking of hashtags isn’t in and of itself perplexing, although it does cause this writer some mild annoyance. Locking up language in general is something that should be treated carefully, but doing so specifically with social media language in an ecosystem designed for proliferation and sharing is ripe for conflict. One need only look at how the Olympics treats hashtags to see this, or how big businesses will greedily “protect” the use of hashtags, no matter any actual concern about public confusion over the use of the marks. The point is, the same general problem with the practical application of trademarks is exacerbated by social media: trademarks too often aren’t specific or identifying enough.
Recently, an example of this has emerged on Twitter in the form of a quickly-resolved dispute between the University of California and the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Cal’s mascot is “the Golden Bears”, you see. The Chicago Bears somewhat irritatingly staked a claim to the hashtag #GoBears, such that the Chicago Bears logo appeared every time someone used the hashtag. The University of California holds a trademark on the hashtag, however, and the school’s Twitter account registered its annoyance with the Chicago team in an admittedly congenial way.
Appreciate the support guys, but that’s the wrong logo ???? https://t.co/quF1xTq1xP
— Cal Athletics (@CalAthletics) September 6, 2017
Now, to be clear, what the Chicago Bears did was both dumb and irritating. Cal’s response was not overly aggressive either. The end result of all of this was that the Chicago Bears backed off and the team logo no longer appears when the hashtag is used. There’s no big bad villian in this story.
But we’re not going to let this go without pointing out that #GoBears simply is not a source-identifying hashtag for the Cal Golden Bears. It’s just not. There are a ton of teams that use some flavor of “bears” as their mascots. Here in Chicago, when someone says “go Bears!”, there is no confusion as to the reference and the University of California never even enters the mind. So, instead of being a trademark designed to act as a brand identifier, instead this is simply an instance of a university locking up the term in hashtag form. It’s exactly the same as what the Chicago Bears did, in other words, when it placed its logo alongside any use of the hashtag: claiming ownership and limiting the use of the term for everyone else. Given that the term is a terrible identifier of the product being discussed, it seems obvious that it never should have been granted trademark rights.