Hey! Get Off My Name. Username disputes are the domain squatting of the future.

On the heels of WIPO‘s announcement that domain disputes increased to a record 2,329 cases in 2008 (8% increase from 2007) a much more interesting question is starting to be raised. What rights do brands have to their usernames on social services such as MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. As most of the major companies have already secured their URLs, the most valuable real estate for them to cultivate these days is their persistent space within these social communities. And today it’s the wild west with each service arriving at its own set of principles mixing various legal arguments with their own business objectives and user protection.

Take Apple for example – one of the world’s most powerful and loved brands. Of course Apple.com is their corporate website but what about their social presence? Let’s see what the username “Apple” yields on these four prominent social spaces:

MySpace (/apple) = DJ Apple. Brand Fail.
Twitter (/apple) = Squatter. Brand Fail.
YouTube (/apple) = Some user named Apple. Brand Fail.

Wow, so Apple fails to occupy the real estate associated with their brand on three of the most important social publishing and community tools of the Web2 era. You think they’d want to address this, yes? But how? There’s no clear WIPO-like rules in place for service usernames. And none of these users are violating Apple’s trademark or creating brand confusion so it’s unclear that Apple has any legal right to the usernames since “Apple” is a generic term. For clear trademarks or impersonations it’s easier to claim your brand.

Basically in this case brands are left with two choices:

1) Negotiate directly with the user and try to purchase the namespace a la buying a domain name.

2) Contact the service provider and try to get them to reclaim the name on behalf of the brand, sometimes using the carrot or stick of advertising spend. This often happens under the cover of darkness when the user account is inactive but what happens when the user has a vibrant community around them? Does the service provider really want to set off blogosphere shitstorm and be accused of selling out their users?

So what’s a potential best practice for this new reality?

A) Free market + easy account transfer. Service providers such as MySpace could support the ability to transfer an account and its history to a new user name along with a payment to the account holder negotiated between the brand and the user. Make the transfer option available with a minimum payment of $5k in order to minimize the number of account transfers. Once transferred on the legacy account, support a ” has relocated to ” for a 90 day period.

B) Separate official namespaces for brands – /brand/name as opposed to /user. Is this part of the Twitter revenue strategy?

Does anyone know of services or communities that are elegantly handling the username issue? (I’ll offer up that it’s a challenge for us here at YouTube).

Note: I haven’t included Facebook because as a Real Name system there really isn’t a /apple equivalent. The issue of whether user-created fan pages are being embraced by brands or shut down is a separate post. Coke at least did something very novel with their user-started fan page.