At one minute past midnight on Saturday 13th June 2009, 200 million Facebook users worldwide will have the opportunity to sign up for a URL incorporating their chosen username.  

Although there is nothing particularly new about this feature (users of LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter have benefitted from personalised URLs for some time now) the enormous reach of the social networking phenomenon that is Facebook will no doubt cause concern for brand owners.  

The Username Feature  

Facebook has announced that the new feature will be rolled out in two phases; the first beginning this weekend for users whose Facebook pages were active before 31 May 2009 and who have at least 1,000 friends. The second phase will commence on Sunday 28 June, enabling all other users to select their chosen username.  

Users requesting a username will be allocated on a “first come first served” basis and users will be able to select a name (which will be non-transferrable) chosen by Facebook or of their own choosing.  

The delay between the two phases and the policy of non-transferability are, as Facebook argues, to prevent abusive registrations and the so-called practice of ‘name squatting’ by the creation of fake accounts.  

Protections  

In addition, there are certain protections envisaged by Facebook which may help to preserve the rights of trade mark owners. Facebook has already reserved the right to “remove and/or reclaim any username at any time for any reason” which may provide them with an escape strategy for usernames which infringe trade mark rights. Usernames which are chosen must also comply with Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities which contain restrictions on the posting of material and “taking any action” which may infringe another’s rights.  

Of particular note is a form for rights owners to reserve their username and an automated ‘IP infringement form’ available on the Facebook blog which announced the launch of the feature (http://www.facebook.com/copyright.php?noncopyright_notice=1). The form provides registered rights owners with an ‘after-the-event’ opportunity to report an infringement of their rights and request formal removal of the infringing username. Significantly, Facebook do not promise to remove the name on receipt of this request.  

IP commentators remain concerned over whether the proposed system will provide anything like an adequate protection for brand owners. Even if the resolution process works successfully, the system envisaged by Facebook takes no account of the complexity of trade mark systems which permit identical marks to be registered for dissimilar goods. At a further level of generality, there will be many who feel uncomfortable at the creation of what amounts to a private monopoly (particularly after the host of domain suffixes that have been created over recent years to add still further to the burdens of those seeking to protect their rights.  

Options for Trade Mark Owners  

Whilst, at present, the usernames will only function as ‘locators’ for each user’s profile, Facebook has expressed a desire to develop “more ways” to exploit username URLs in the future.  

Considering the unknown but potentially vast scope of any future exploitation of username URLs, we suggest adopting a ‘belt and braces’ approach by taking full advantage of Facebook’s protection systems in the following ways:

  1. Where your business has a trade mark and a Facebook account that was live before 31 May 2009  
  • Fill in the online reservation form today

(http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=username_rights)  

The information required includes a contact email, company name and title, details of your mark and its registration number (note that unregistered rights are still unprotected).  

  • Request a username which is in line with your business and/or trade mark name
  1. Where your business has a trade mark but does not yet have a Facebook account
  • Fill in the online reservation form (see link above).
  • Sign up for a Facebook account as soon as possible  
  • On 28 June 2009, apply online for a username which is in line with your business and/or trade mark name  
  1.  Where your business has a trade mark but does not have a Facebook account and another person has already registered your trade mark as their username

The information required includes contact information, details of how the right was infringed and confirmation that the person contesting the username is the owner of the mark.  

  • Sign up for a Facebook account as soon as possible
  1. Where your business has a trade mark and a Facebook account that was live before 31 May but another person has already registered your trade mark as their username before you  
  • Fill in the IP infringement form (see link above)

By following these procedures, rights owners will have the best prospect of maintaining protection of their IP rights and may even be able to take advantage of the business perks of Facebook by enjoying contact with millions of users.