Home Anty-Climax Twitter is suing me!

Twitter is suing me!

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Today, I received an unprompted and strangely vague email from a Sydney-based public relations consultant, with the provocative email heading:

Twitter is Suing me!!!

Here’s what the email said:

I’ve just been contacted by an Australian friend in New York who does a lot of work in the online / tech world. He developed a twitter application… and he’s just received a letter from Twitter lawyers – they’re suing him.

The email chain begins with what appears to be a letter from Twitter’s legal attorney (we have yet to confirm its authenticity), followed by a summary of its contents by the aggrieved application developer:

The email outlines Twitter’s complaints:

1/ That anyone using the API to auto follow people are breaching the [Terms of Service]
2/ That no one can use the word “Twitter” in their domain
3/ That somehow people might be confused my application is related to twitter even though every page is labeled:

“Copyright 2009 © [Application name] – Not related in anyway to Twitter Inc. If I owned Twitter would I be spending my time building this app?”

We have not yet been able to confirm the legitimacy of the letter or the complaint. As such, I have removed reference to the application in question.

However, whether legitimate or not (I suspect it is), the above correspondence does raise some interesting observations and questions about Twitter’s growing relevance to millions of people worldwide, the value of opening APIs and the competitive commercial environment this path has created.

Firstly, we can understand how Twitter might take offence at others using its proprietary name. But is it tilting at windmills?

When a product becomes as successful as Twitter (or Hoover or Kleenex or Esky or Band-Aid, etc), a brand is likely to risk greater backlash than commercial gain from its enforcement. Remember when Google attempted this?

Also, isn’t ‘twitter’ already a common word, part of our language beyond ownership? (To make high-pitched sounds, as of birds?)

While I’d personally love to prevent anyone from using the word Anthill, especially as a name for a business, I’d also hate to deny a name to the many ants that make hills their homes. And I’d be wasting my time (like Twitter, I suspect).

Secondly, it seems strange that the Twitter ‘Terms of Service’ prohibit auto-following.

I personally know of two Twitter applications that allow just that. The first allows me to follow others who follow me (which only seems polite). The second allows me to follow anyone who uses key words, such as ‘James Tuckerman’ (like Google alerts). It also stands to reason that if I was a Michael Jackson fan, I may want to follow other MJ acolytes.

I can, however, perceive how such tools could be exploited by spammers. But only if the Twitter target is silly enough to follow back (or uses the first tool mentioned above, out of politeness, at their own folly).

Thirdly, and most importantly, this development forces the question:

“Does this type of development act against the whole purpose of releasing APIs in the first place, discouraging third parties from developing applications and helping to build a vibrant Twitter community?”

It seems overly harsh to provide the tools, invite others to plug in, then restrict developers from commercially exploiting the fruit of their labour, after all the work has been done.

Did someone say ‘equitable estoppel‘?

Twitter has hit some turbulence in recent weeks.

First, TechCrunch published some of its leaked confidential documents. Then, yesterday, social media rival Facebook acquired FriendFeed and added real time search – a move that sees it muscling in on Twitter’s turf.

Under this intensified pressure, is Twitter – the poster child of everyone’s-invited, it’s-fun-to-share, revenue-will-come-later, web culture – becoming tetchy?

Only time will tell (most likely in under 140 characters).

UPDATE (13 August 2009): Looks like Mashable is now on the scent.

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