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What's In A Name? The Internet vs. The Real World

In the real world we own our name. I've got a birth certificate somewhere which confirms who I am and, short of changing it by deed poll, this name will remain with me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. Although there's quite a few Gary Gales out there on the Internet, this one is inextricably me and no-one can take that away from me.

But in the online world we don't so much as own our names, we ... lease them. I've "owned" the domain name continuously since April 2001 but it's not ownership as we understand it in the real world. If I don't renew my domain every so often it'll lapse and someone else, should they wish to, can take it over. This is an arrangement I can live with as it's the way the Internet domain name system works, like it or hate it. I will, at least, get some warning to renew my claim on (temporary) ownership of the domain as there's a financial arrangement at play. I pay some money and, domain grabs notwithstanding, I keep the domain for the duration of the period I've paid for.

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But in social media, where most services are "free", it's by no means as clear cut. I've been @vicchi on Twitter since March 2007 and, for those people who know me on social media, Gary Gale and @vicchi are inextricably linked. But as Twitter giveth, so can Twitter taketh away.

A recent post on Paul Clarke's blog highlighted this. The ever ingenious Tom Armitage used to have a Twitter account for @towerbridge, which was run by a Twitter 'bot which tweeted the times at which this London landmark opened and closed the bridge over the River Thames. Twitter recently decided to take this account away, with warning but with no dialogue, and give it "official" status to the exhibition which runs inside the bridge structure, which may or may not be owned by The City of London, which actually owns the bridge. Twitter, as part of their terms of service says this ...

Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation

... which makes sense. But they then go on to say ...

When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.

When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.

A search of the UK Trade Mark database yields many matches for Tower Bridge. For an electronics company in the US, a software company in the US, a tobacco company in the UK, a clothing company in the UK and a leather good company in the UK. But the bridge itself? That's trademarked as Tower Bridge Events, Tower Bridge The Venue and Tower Bridge Exhibition.

To my mind, Tom's Twitter bot isn't using a trademark nor is tweeting the opening and closing times of the bridge likely to mislead through unauthorised use of a trademark. But that's just my opinion.


It does make me think about how much or how little control we have over our social media identity though. I've been Vicchi for as long as I can remember (or at least 15 years); the name is a contraction of a nickname I was given when I returned to the UK from Italy and started out as Gazzavicchi. The precise origins are lost in the mists of time but I can recall it was coined one drunken evening as it "sounds vaguely like an Italian version of Gary", which is often how the best nicknames originate. This coincided with the explosion of the Internet and the Web and I needed a unique identity to register on the many and varied services which sprung up. Vicchi seemed to fit the bill and it's been Vicchi ever since. Thankfully, it's not (currently) a UK trademark although there do seem to be a couple of companies in Asia using the name. So far, they've not come calling asking for the name. I hope they never do but if this does happen, how much right over the name do I have, even though it's fairly evident that I'm not trying to pass myself off as them nor to cause potential confusion?

But then again, the same could be said of Tom's Tower Bridge bot as well.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user