Boys and golf girls, we need to have a little chat. There’s a rift in the Twitterverse, and we need to discuss its implications.
Backstory: I participate in a weekly Twitter chat called #Golfchat, which, for all intents and purposes, is a bunch of nerds arguing about the Olympics and Rickie Fowler’s fashion choices.
So, this community of people has come together through the work of one Zeb Welborn and his partners in crime. In recent months, it’s taken on a new life: there’s a newsletter, a committed group of participants, and even a small group of writers who regularly contribute content to the dedicated website (myself included).
Now, here’s where things get messy. A couple weeks back, we noticed another user trying to host a #Golfchat of his own. Different day, different time, and for a completely different purpose (to market a golf app). This user, whom I’ve been affectionately referring to as DM (Douche McGee), had joined the original #Golfchat for about as long as it takes to sneeze, but bowed out when he realized that we don’t take well to product pitching. Instead, he lifted the idea verbatim and started his own.
This isn’t earth-shattering, but it raises the question: should someone else be able to hijack a chat when they have full knowledge of its origins?
Suffice it to say the conversation got heated. The first point of contention was that DM’s familiarity with Zeb extends beyond the 140 character limit – he heard him speak specifically about #Golfchat at a conference. So this wasn’t an accidental thievery. The second point wasn’t so much the stealing of the tag itself – people drop #Golfchat into tweets all the time – it’s the identical replication of the concept, with the intent to horn in on a well-established community of people.
For those who don’t know, you can’t own a run-of-the-mill hashtag. It’s not generally considered intellectual property, nor is it a product or something tangible. It can be someone’s brainchild (#foodiechats being a ridiculously successful example, from the brain of Steve Green), but “I said it first” isn’t a great legal argument when you’re talking about a public platform comprised of over 300 million active users.
There are cases when you can apply for a trademark – namely, if the hashtag is used to identify the source of goods or services. For example, Nike can’t trademark #running, but they can certainly trademark #JustDoIt. Slogans and taglines are fair game, but in most cases, they’re already trademarked outside of Twitter, so the hashtag trademark is a formality.
Some would argue that #Golfchat totally qualifies. We’re a group, doing a specific thing, and we’ve been doing that thing long enough to be considered a brand of sorts. All true. But there’s a catch.
To trademark #Golfchat, we’d have to be protecting the goods and services of a person (an inventor, essentially) or an organization. Since we don’t pay #taxes, we don’t have paid #employees and we definitely don’t have #offices, we don’t qualify. Technically, Zeb could put up a fight, stating that the community conversation is a service, and it was created by him. But he’d have a hard time winning the case since he isn’t the only #Golfchat overlord, and it isn’t his full-time business. I was able to confirm all this with some lawyer friends who may or may not think I lead a very boring life, since this is the only legal question I’ve ever asked them.
With #foodiechats, Green made a business model out of it. He’s literally the CEO and founder of a big group of food-loving tweeters. He managed to create a system – businesses can host the chat each week (for a fee), allowing the marketing side to creep in while still maintaining the integrity of the conversation – that led to a larger, more official organization. His is one of the few (by merit of having been one of the first) that qualifies as an exception to the hashtag vs. trademark rule. We’re not at that point, and frankly, I think most of us are fine with that.
Regardless of all the legal crap, the real conversation isn’t about slapping someone with a lawsuit or getting #Golfchat business cards printed (but…I wouldn’t be opposed to the latter). It’s about respect and integrity, two things you want to assume exist in the golf world but spend more time as theories than realities.
When approached privately, DM didn’t back down. His argument was a shorter version of the above: we don’t have a claim to the hashtag, and even if we did, neither golf nor Twitter chats were invented by us. The concept is up for grabs.
As a social media marketer, I agree with him. Sure, categorize your tweets however you want and have whatever Q&A session your little heart desires.
But as a member of #Golfchat and someone who was raised an only child, I call #bullshit. I could stomp my feet all day about how it isn’t fair, how stealing is wrong. But it’s not that simple. He doesn’t just want to have a conversation. He wants to hijack a captive audience for his marketing purposes, which is not only annoying, it’s dishonest and confusing to newcomers. If we want to see tweets from the original golfchatters, we have to search the hashtag, forcing us to wade through his clutter. DM is trying to stoke a fire with a stolen match – it’s guerrilla marketing, but it’s also dilution of the concept.
We all talk about golf seven days a week (I told you, we’re a big bunch o’nerds). But just because we’re talking about golf doesn’t mean we’re participating in #Golfchat. It’s a standalone entity, an hour per week where we can all brag or complain or argue, knowing everyone participating is on the same page.
It’s organized. It’s contained. It’s accessible and predictable. His addition – or the addition of anyone else’s version of #Golfchat – upsets the balance and creates chaos where there need not be any.
Legally, #Golfchat may not be ours alone, but we’ve made it something unique through Zeb’s groundwork and the collective personality of the chat. It’s like a weird little club – anyone can join, but that doesn’t devalue the meaning of the membership. In a sport that can be as unwelcoming and exclusive as golf, protecting something like #Golfchat should be a priority.
I’m not saying DM needs to stop what he’s doing, and I’m not naive enough to think that other marketers won’t attempt to leverage what we do. But I wouldn’t choose to rip off his app concept for my own gain, and I would hope that he’d (eventually) understand that ripping someone else off doesn’t make him a good marketer.
It makes him a cheater. And last time I checked, golfers don’t like cheaters.
Update: Zeb received an apology for the miscommunication (though not from DM). As far as Zeb is concerned, “all is good.”
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