Verbs became nouns when hashtags took on a life of their own.
The verb was the “doing word” – the link allowing a user to search for a topic or thread relevant to the discussion he or she may be viewing or taking part in, whether on Twitter or elsewhere.
A useful link too, if one wanted to see what other information and thoughts were out there on the topic in hand.
Stylistically it was a winner too – the simple application of the # prefix to a word or phrase. And that simple format quickly led to its use multiplying to an extraordinary degree. Using social media now, as a tool for disseminating or seeking information or views, almost always involves the hashtag link.
And that link has become an item in its own right – one that we can all create.
If the words haven’t been used before in a particular sequence, go for it – precede them with # and you have your own hashtag.
Easy – but what have you created?
Let’s think about brands and businesses. They want to create a marketable asset – a searchable link to a brand topic or marketing campaign. A succinct and relevant way of selling.
And by using hashtags in that manner the question arises as to how that business can protect and/or ring-fence its newly created asset for the better exploitation of the brand in question.
Is it really IP in the first place?
The increasing use of hashtags by businesses is another way of using a recognisable word or expression to identify that business’ products or services – in other words it’s a trade mark.
Sell a car, promote your perfume, make that fizzy drink relevant to a defined audience – combine trends with products – engage with a communication form that inserts your company into the medium where the buyers are looking, thinking, discussing.
Businesses are not the only recognisers of this benefit – so too governments and global organisations.
The United Nations recently published a report on “Hashtag Standards for Emergencies” – a rallying cry to embrace the hashtag to help focus relief aid in emergency situations. It went further though – suggesting that such hashtags be standardised, becoming recognisable and therefore better usuable in an emergency.
So – a disaster gets its own hashtag – here’s the link to the imminent earthquake, the volcanic eruption, the tsunami; so too the platform for the public to add their local and up-to-date knowledge of the unfolding crisis – where’s safe for now, who’s providing shelter, who’s in trouble; and, perhaps most critically, a hashtag linking to the emergency response needs.
A social media triage.
Limited of course by the very nature of the medium – it needs access by enough people to a reliable internet source, it needs decent GPS, it needs power – but a potentially crucial and real-time aid in an emergency.
And all the better for that access being via a standardised recognisable hashtag – the trademark.
So, whether you’re trying to sell fruit juice or provide water to a starving population, you’ll want to consider whether that trade mark is worth protecting. And to protect a trade mark one should try to register it.
Trade marks and hashtags
More cheese anyone?
If a business already has a registered trademark then it seems entirely consistent that the adding of a hash symbol to that trademark would likewise be protected. In other words the hashtag equivalent would not lose that protection – and why should it? It is not a newly distinctive element that changes the trademark – in the same way that the suffix approach – adding a “.com” for example – is considered protected to the same extent as its trademark phrase.
So, should a company bother with the costs and expense of attempting to register the hashtag as a separate trademark?
Last year, a UK cheese business – Wyke Farms – successfully registered as a trademark its hashtag “#freecheesefriday”. Its campaign (a weekly cheese competition) had become so popular that the phrase lent recognisability to the product.
Its Managing Director was quoted as saying that, “We have seen numerous benefits – increased brand recognition, improved brand loyalty, improved sales and smarter customer insight. This is why we decided it was time to protect our brand by trade marking our competition.”
He took the view that the creation of a recognisable and valuable brand not only justified protection, it warranted registration – and thus extend its control over the manner in which the trademark was used and distributed on social media.
Will other businesses now more readily follow suit? We have seen some do so – and in so doing we’re reminded of the process itself.
In making a trademark application for a hashtag the criteria are the same as for a non-hashtag version of that mark – in other words, the Intellectual Property Office will disregard the prefix and assess in the normal way whether the mark is sufficiently distinctive for the applicant’s products or services. And, as in the Wyke Farms case, it may that that mark’s use in social media campaigns lends weight to that distinctiveness.
Will it be worth it?
A registered trademark still needs to be protected – effectively by the owner in actively enforcing its rights.
With the use of a registered hashtag trademark the question is widened to accommodate the very nature of that hashtag – it’s still really a verb after all – it still has a usefulness in linking communication threads, a usefulness that the owner presumably wants to promote. So, its use per se is not the issue – assuming of course that its use complies with the social media sites’ own trademark policies!
The issue is when a third party uses that hashtag to attempt to promote their own products or services. At which point the owner needs to assert its rights and control the misuse; except of course that the very nature of social media, and the creative nature of marketing within that forum, makes that control less easy by the need to be extra vigilant.
Essentially the costs and expense, both of registration and of continued protection, will be a decision taken on balance by each business, perhaps weighing up the attraction of a registered right against the often ephemeral nature of any social media campaign.