Inside USD

Ruling Social Media’s Dark Side

Monday, April 18, 2011

It’s hard to remember how we all kept in touch before the advent of the Internet and electronic communication that has been born from it. While email is still the standard, it has dipped in popularity by the birth of social media tools that take communicating to a whole new level. We can’t seem to go a day without hearing about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs — the majority of corporations, non-profits, academic institutions and even the government have recognized this fact and established a social networking presence to further develop their presence and to maintain their relevance in the most dynamic, global business environment humankind has ever seen.

While social media tools can be leveraged effectively by companies to further their brands, advertise their products, and promote their services, they also represent the proverbial double-edged sword: imposters can create unauthorized social media representations that can tarnish  a company’s brand image. Often dubbed “brandjacking,” this phenomenon represents a very real threat to a company’s carefully cultivated reputation. The law, constantly trying to keep pace with technological and societal advancements, is still largely unsettled in this arena.

Lisa Ramsey, a professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law, is one of the pioneers in brandjacking legal scholarship. Ramsey has spent the last semester in Australia as a visiting scholar at Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne, where she did research on Australian trademark and free speech law. At the request of the University’s Centre for Media and Communications Law, Ramsey presented her paper, “Brandjacking on Social Networks: Trademark Infringement by Impersonation of Markholders” in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.

“My scholarship and research focuses on the potential conflict between trademark and free speech rights in international and national laws,” Ramsey explained. “Today users of social network sites are not only impersonating celebrities, but also companies and organizations on social network sites. If the third party is using a trademarked brand name without authorization to confuse consumers about the source of his or her expression, then this use of the mark may violate trademark infringement law.”

Ramsey shared recent examples of brandjacking, showcasing the very real consequences it can have on businesses. According to Ramsey, a Facebook user with the alias “Nine West Shoes” set up a fake Nine West model auditions group page and convinced women and teenage girls interested in model auditions to send the imposter their contact information and photographs of their faces, bodies, and toes. In addition, a competitor of the public relations firm Tanner Friedman allegedly impersonated the company on Twitter and sent out embarrassing posts purportedly written by employees of the firm.

“Consumers confused by imposters online can be harmed in various ways. They may suffer financial harm, or may just feel violated — think of the women who sent photos and contact information to the fake Nine West Shoes account holder on Facebook,” Ramsey said. “If goods or services promoted on the page are falsely represented to come from the markholder, customers may also mistakenly purchase another company’s products, which may be of lower quality.”

— Melissa Wagoner and Jared Ruga ‘11

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