Imagine that you have an internet username that you’ve been using for a long time – say, BettyBoop1977. You have a Twitter account, maybe a Facebook profile or page in that name. You might even have started a blog or site under that handle with one of the popular free sites like Blogger, WordPress, Weebly or Tumblr. Everyone in your circle (let’s say, a few dozen people) knows you by that handle. You have your own personal brand, right?
Wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong about that. Brand ownership does not start and end with getting BettyBoop77 as your Twitter username. Sadly, too many amateurs in the social media arena don’t give a lot of thought into building a brand that they themselves own, as opposed to having a free, hosted domain with another company’s extension.
Putting aside the fact that Facebook pages and WordPress accounts are owned by another provider – who often places ads under your intellectual property, your page can disappear at any moment. Your account can be suspended or hacked. The design or template you’re using could be scrapped on a dime, and you could lose hundreds of followers at the snap of a finger.
But the issue of who hosts your blog should be your secondary concern. Your primary objective – if you are entirely confident in your brand and intend to build it to the point where it can be monetized or even resold – is to secure BettyBoop1977 as more than a twitter handle. You’ll want to buy the domain name, but even then it might not be enough.
What if, one day, you get a phone call from the police after someone feels you criminally harassed them because you “stole her highly unique brand name”?
I know it seems like an insane situation, but this is exactly what happened to me last month.
BRANDING Lesson 101: Branding, Copyright and Social Media
I’m writing this piece because I am not the only person on the internet using the handle “TheLizBuzz”. I was recently informed – by a Metro Toronto police officer, no less – that a certain individual had complained to them that I had stolen her “highly unique” brand after I registered the domain www.thelizbuzz.com.
After giving this insanity a lot of thought, I’ve decided to write about my experience as part of my Artists’ Guide to Social Media Series, and as a warning to anybody who might encounter individuals who may be delusional enough to believe that someone who has “stolen” their Twitter or Instagram username and turned it into a new website – should be arrested and prosecuted for having committed a criminal offense. It’s tantamount to a chat-room spat – say, being called a “bitch,” “asshole” or “whore” on social media and contacting police because your feelings were hurt. Can you imagine how the courts would be inundated with frivolous, idiotic prosecutions because of name-calling, or because buying someone’s online username as your domain has “hurt their brand”?
Of course her criminal complaint went nowhere because I had done nothing wrong, but that’s not the point. The experience taught me an important lesson, and one that I’d like to impart with you guys. As someone who has had the unfortunate experience to explain to a (very understanding, I should add) police officer that branding (or even domain squatting or copyright violations) are not of themselves indictable offences under the Criminal Code of Canada – I thought I should set the record straight, once and for all.
At the time I registered the www.thelizbuzz.com domain (back in late August/September 2015), a Google search revealed this Ontario-based individual (who has an almost identical first name to mine) was using the nickname “thelizbuzz” on only three sites – Twitter, WordPress and Instagram. Perhaps she might have had other accounts, but I only found those three. She was a consultant with a two-year degree in social media from George Brown College, but had never – even after getting her certificate – thought to fork over the $11 that it cost me to register the domain thelizbuzz.com. How serious could she have been about branding if she – a certified and newly-minted social media grad – couldn’t even think to buy her own domain name?
To my knowledge and limited online sleuthing, the url www.thelizbuzz.com in of itself, or its .ca extension, had never been registered. And since buying a url that might have been used as someone’s Twitter handle isn’t illegal in Canada yet (lol), I didn’t think twice about it.
My Romanian name is Eliza, and I quite liked the catchiness of TheLizBuzz as a new consulting business for myself, an offshoot of my small publishing venture, Incognito Press. Unfortunately I also happened to know Liz, the person who was using that nickname, and at one point we had been friends – but our friendship broke up last year over another serious matter.
In the seven months that followed our “breakup”, I realized that she hadn’t taken any active steps toward actually buying, incorporating or monetizing the brand. It was just a matter of time before someone else would snatch up that domain, so why couldn’t that somebody be me?
Ok, perhaps it was in poor taste for me to “borrow” Liz’s Twitter username (which didn’t even have very many followers) and start branding it under my own name, but I didn’t feel too bad about it either since she hadn’t done anything to monetize it – so I spent $11 and bought the url thelizbuzz.com with the express intent of marketing it as my new brand. There is absolutely nothing illegal about that.
In September 2015 I registered www.thelizbuzz.com as my new arts and social media consulting site. I thought about registering for an Ontario Business License at the time, but I didn’t have the $60 for the registration. I then started a new blog with a social media theme, thelizbuzz.blogspot.com.
Although Liz had my telephone number and email address, not once in the following five months did she ever contact me to express that she wanted the domain for herself – or that she had any problem whatsoever with me developing that brand, even after I emailed her to inform her about it. I would gladly have sold the domain back to her for the same $11 I paid for it, but she never said a thing and so I proceeded to develop the brand and a new website.
In fact, I had absolutely no clue that she was pissed off until I heard that she had gone to the police.
It was only after the insanity of hearing from the police officer (in January 2016) that I had stolen this other Liz’s “highly unique” social media brand (i.e. Twitter username) that I decided to – once and for all – do a proper search for her alleged business proprietorship and clear up my name.
I don’t deny that we are two women who are in the same field – we are both social media strategists and content creators – and we both live in the Toronto area. I don’t deny that we share a similar and very controversial history, and that we are also competitors in our social media businesses.
However, deciding to develop “TheLizBuzz” as my new brand is not illegal either – it’s called capitalism. Perhaps Liz hadn’t heard of the concept – or didn’t care enough to develop it herself. God knows she’d had enough years to do it.
I would soon discover that the domain and handle “thelizbuzz” had NEVER been registered either as a domain OR as a business in Ontario. I went ahead and spent approx. $10 to do a business search on the government business site, and lo and behold – NOBODY had ever registered thelizbuzz as a business.
Here’s the official form from the government website which attests that as of January 15, 2016 there was “NO MATCH FOUND” in the business directory database. Virtual proof that I had NOT stolen anybody’s branding or consulting business.
So for all the stress I went through and the negative things said about me behind my back, it turns out that the police complainant, Liz, had only used a Twitter username and a WordPress blog with approx. nine entries written over the span of two years – hardly enough to establish that I had stolen her “intellectual property” and copyright.
As a freelance writer and artist, I don’t have the money to sue this woman for emotional distress or what I see as an overt attempt at malicious prosecution. I can’t sue someone just for having stalked my website, blog and social media networks with a frightening consistency and sense of entitlement for the past year.
After several death threats from psycho racists in the past (my memoir Race Traitor was an exposé of the Canadian white supremacist movement), I had IP trackers installed on all my blogs and websites. This enabled me to now track Liz’s IP (and VPNs) and see it show up continuously, sometimes as much as several times a day for weeks and months on end. The obsessive nature of the continual visits started to trigger major anxiety and affect my work – until I decided that I wouldn’t allow anybody to take away my power.
But what I CAN do – both for myself and my readers – is to advise that when you establish a brand, you must take great care to prove your ownership. You don’t have to fork over big bucks to establish trademarks and register copyrights over a domain name – the costs can run into the thousands and you’d have to establish copyright and trademarks in each country you plan to operate your business.
And what you CAN do is what I ended up doing – a perfectly legitimate and solid proof of business ownership:
Officially registering “TheLizBuzz” as MY business in the province of Ontario.
I have now taken the step of establishing a business bank account and clients can write cheques directly to my brand, the same way they already do for “Incognito Press.” I have registered thelizbuzz on every social media platform I can find – Facebook, Reddit, Pintrest, Tumblr, Flickr, Skype, and many others. But I’ve also ensured that both the .com and .ca domains and business account are linked to MY name.
That is how you do branding.
Moral of the story: save yourself the trouble and heartache of building a brand and potentially losing it – make sure you always buy a domain first (before you even establish your Twitter and Facebook handles), and register yourself as a business in the province or state where your business will operate.
So in the unlikely event that someone comes around accusing you of stealing “their” brand, you are completely covered and have established your ownership of what is now YOUR brand.
Remember, kids, that branding is more than just a name – it’s an identity. So claim it, own it, and live it to its fullest potential.
End of story.