The clock is ticking for companies that want to protect their trademark on Facebook, warn intellectual property lawyers.
Starting Saturday, at 12:01 a.m. EST, Facebook will allow an estimated 200 million users to select any "usernames," which can include a trademark, brand name or personal name. And if the owner hasn't registered the trademark first with Facebook, it's up for grabs.
Lawyers note that while the new usernames will be a good marketing tool for companies to promote their products on Facebook and direct users to their Web sites, cybersquatters could snatch the trademark first and exploit it.
That's why they're urging trademark owners to visit the Facebook site and register the trademark before the land rush on Saturday.
"This is really a way for someone who has a distinct or famous trademark to let Facebook know that others should not be allowed to register that page," said Brian Fergemann, a partner and intellectual property attorney at Chicago's Winston & Strawn, which issued a Web alert to clients this week, urging them to register their trademarks with Facebook. "They can just say, 'Please don't let anyone use my registered trademark,'" Fergemann said.
Fergemann said that cybersquatters and name-squatters -- those who squat on the trademark rights of others -- are a rapidly growing problem on the Internet, where people are setting up bogus accounts under company names or celebrities' names.
For example, there was a recent Twitter account bearing the name of football star Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, but he had nothing to do with it. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also has had phony accounts bearing his name on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.
In California, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is suing Twitter, alleging an unauthorized page using his name hurt his reputation and caused emotional distress. The suit, which was filed last month in state superior court in San Francisco, seeks unspecified damages.
Winston & Strawn also recently represented basketball star Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors in a cybersquatting federal lawsuit, in which someone had set up the Web site www.chrisbosh.com. The court ended up giving the domain name to the real Chris Bosh.
On the corporate trademark front, Fergemann explained that Facebook will now allow companies to plug their name into the username. In the past, a company could have a Web page on Facebook, but the URL assigned to that page was facebook.com, and then a random series of numbers and digits. It didn't identify the company by name. But now Facebook is changing that format to allow a much cleaner URL, which will appear as "facebook.com/company name."
To prevent cybersquatting, Facebook is giving brand owners a chance to pre-emptively protect their rights and block their trademarks from being used by others by registering the trademark before Saturday. And if a company misses the deadline, Facebook will feature a grievance procedure allowing brand owners to report that someone's username infringes on their intellectual property or publicity rights.
It's not risk-free, Fergemann said of the new Facebook username policy, but it has it's benefit.
"It is a great tool. It's kind of expanding the ability of people to use Facebook as a platform for advertising ... but at the same time, it creates this potential opportunity for people to squat on other people's trademarks," he said.
His advice: Quickly click on Facebook.
"It's very simple to do," he said. "There's a page on the Facebook Web site and you can provide your company's name, the trademark and the federal trademark registration number. And subject to their review, Facebook will reserve the trademark and not let anyone else use it."