Twitter needs to stand its ground over James Dean legal action

Legal threats on Twitter are nothing new, but it is usually Twitter users who are the subject of litigation. In the case of the @JamesDean account, however, it is Twitter itself found on the receiving end of legal action. Acting on behalf of the James Dean estate, celebrity licensing agency CMG Worldwide is attempting to wrestle control of the Twitter account -- which is currently being used to tweet quotes by and about the star -- from the hands of its current owner.

The complaint says that Twitter is breaching trademarks owned by James Dean Inc by placing "objectionable content" online. CMG Worldwide has been in touch with Twitter to ask that the account activity be stopped, and that contact details for the account owner be handed over. Twitter has refused both requests. It is hard to see how the James Dean estate could have suffered "immeasurable and irreparable" damage. It is also interesting to note that the complaint suggests that unless the account activity stops, then James Dean Inc "will continue to be irreparably harmed and suffer actual damages in an amount as yet undetermined". There is no suggestion of what irreparable damage has actually been caused.

Fan pages exist all over the web, and any company, individual or representative that tries to take fans to court does the fans and themselves a great disservice. It would be a very different matter if a user on Twitter was tweeting defamatory statements about the actor, but this is not what is happening here. CMG Worldwide complains that Twitter and the owner of the @JamesDean account falsely represent James Dean Inc. This is precisely why verified accounts exist. The @JamesDean account is not verified, and there would be nothing to stop CMG Worldwide from creating one of their own which Twitter would presumably be only too happy to verify.

The existence of "real" verified accounts, and unofficial fan accounts are to be found all over Twitter. The fact that a celebrity has a particular name does not automatically entitle them to their first choice of Twitter handles -- sorry to be the bearer of bad news. There are countless famous people who have had to "settle" for a less than perfect handle -- the addition of words such as "real" or "the" are common -- but gaining a verification logo makes it clear to everyone that the account is what it appears to be.

The complaint that the use of the James Dean trademark is "knowing, intentional, willful, malicious, and unauthorized" is certainly open to debate. Take a look through the @JamesDean timeline and see for yourself. Not liking something that has been said does not necessarily mean that it is actionable in court. There are certainly issues with some Twitter accounts where fans, or those with malicious intent, do pretend to act on behalf of a celebrity -- both alive and dead -- but this is certainly not the case here.

CMG Worldwide claims to be acting to protect the James Dean image, but in treating fans so poorly its actions are reflecting very badly and will do more damage to the James Dean estate, name and legacy than a fan's Twitter account. It's unclear why this particular account has attracted attention -- at the time of this writing it has just over 8,000 followers (including Yoko Ono, interestingly). Twitter's stance so far has been to do nothing, but it has responded to previous complaints:

We've researched the reported account and determined that it is not in violation of Twitter's Trademark Policy. The account is not being used in a way that is misleading or confusing with regard to its brand, location or business affiliation. Twitter does not have a username registration policy. Users are free to select any name for their account, provided they do not violate Twitter's Terms of Service or Rules.

This could be a case that rumbles on for a while, but I for one will be hoping that Twitter does not back down. How do you feel?


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