Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's a Tweet?

Twitter's application for a trademark registration on the word "tweet" was recently rejected, which led to a discussion among some colleagues and myself as to whether the word is a generic term. The argument in favor is that the word "tweet" has become a common term, which has entered dictionaries and even the AP style guide, as the linked article shows.

A basic principle of of trademark law is that no one can trademark a "generic" term, which is to say, the common term for article or service being sold. Thus, no one could own the exclusive right to sell toothpaste under the name "toothpaste." That would hardly be fair to competing sellers of toothpaste, and the generic term also doesn't perform the basic function of a trademark, which is to tell consumers the source of the product, not what the product is.

Nonetheless, I would say that "tweet" is not generic. Yes, "tweet" has become a common term, but with what meaning? To me, "tweet" means, "a short message carried via the Twitter service." It doesn't mean, generically, "a short message," or even "a short message carried via some social networking service." It is specific to Twitter. I don't think of the short messages I send to my Facebook friends as "tweets."

This usage is confirmed by that eminently reliable source, Wikipedia, which defines "tweet" as "A micro-blog post on the Twitter social network site, or the act of posting on it." And says that a "tweet" is "A post on Twitter, a real-time social messaging system."

So I would say that "tweet" still performs a trademark's source-indicating function. It tells you that the thing named is associated with Twitter specifically. Perhaps people will soon start referring to any short message as a "tweet," but it hasn't happened yet. So I say that "tweet" is not generic.

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