Hashtags have become ubiquitous in social media, but their status as intellectual property—particularly as trademarks—is still developing. First adopted by Twitter users to link user posts, hashtags are character strings preceded by the “#” symbol that generate a link to all other posts containing the same tag. Today, in addition to providing the search-related functionality for which they were first developed, hashtags provide businesses new ways to engage with consumers. Hashtag marketing campaigns by businesses generate brand awareness by encouraging social media users to post with the campaign tag and, in return, offer users discounts, prizes or even a chance to become a model.
But can a hashtag be registered as a trademark? The functional nature of hashtags led to initial uncertainty on this question, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office settled in 2013 when it added a new section to the Trademark Manual of Examination Procedure on registration of hashtag marks. The USPTO defines a hashtag as “a form of metadata comprised of a word or phrase prefixed with the symbol ‘#’” and states that a hashtag mark may be registerable, but only if it functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services. For example, #ingenuity would be registerable for business consulting services as a distinctive term, while #skater for skateboard equipment would be merely generic and non-registerable. In addition, to obtain a registration, the applicant must provide evidence of the use of the mark in connection with the relevant goods or services, which means that, like any other trademark, a hashtag mark must actually be used in commerce to be registrable.
Unlike traditional tag lines, which are meant to be used primarily by the mark owner, hashtags are typically intended to be disseminated by social media users. For example, the makers of Mucinex have registered #blamemucus, which allows potential consumers to commiserate about their colds through social media, as well as spread the word about Mucinex and participate in drawings for prizes. The #blamemucus registration covers both the pharmaceutical products themselves (with a store display bearing the mark as a specimen of use) and services consisting of providing information in the field of respiratory and pulmonary conditions via the internet (with the company website as a specimen). By covering both the core goods and online services, the registration provides broad protection for the hashtag mark against use by competitors. Companies may also attempt to register a phrase that has already become an internet meme. For instance, an application for #throwbackthursday has been filed by producers of an entertainment and comedy series, while #fixitjesus has been claimed by a maker of T-shirts.
As one might expect, the widespread use of hashtags has resulted in trademark disputes from time to time. In 2010, for example, a Wyoming-based chain of Mexican restaurants called Taco John’s, which owns a federal registration for the mark “Taco Tuesday,” sent a cease-and-desist letter to an Oklahoma restaurant called Iguana Grill seeking to stop Iguana Grill’s use of the phrase “Taco Tuesday” and the hashtag #tacotuesday for its own taco promotion. Iguana Grill did agree to stop using the name for its taco night; as of this writing, the restaurant’s Facebook page exhorts customers to “Keep a look out for our taco specials . . . for Iguana Tuesday!” But, as is often the case with arguably heavy-handed trademark enforcement efforts, Taco John’s cease-and-desist letter also resulted in considerable public criticism of Taco John and outspoken support for Iguana Grill.
In March 2015, clothing maker Fraternity Collection brought trademark infringement claims in federal district court in Mississippi against a former designer based on use of the tags #fratcollection and #fraternitycollection on social media. The court accepted at the pleading stage “the notion that hashtagging a competitor’s name or product in social media posts could, in certain circumstances, deceive consumers.” Accordingly, the court held that Fraternity Collection’s complaint stated a claim for false advertising under the Lanham Act and for trademark infringement under state law, and denied the designer’s motion to dismiss those claims. This was, as far as we are aware, the first time that a court has found that use of a competitor’s mark in a hashtag, rather than on the product itself, could result in consumer deception.
The Fraternity Collection case involved a clearly competitive use of the hashtags. What remains unclear, however, is how trademark law will treat hashtags used for non-competitive goods and services. The traditional test for infringement is the likelihood of consumer confusion. This inquiry weighs a number of factors, including the similarity of the respective marks, similarity of the respective goods or services and the advertising channels used by the parties. Thus, courts have generally found consumer confusion to be unlikely when similar or identical marks are used for unrelated goods or services that tend to be advertised in different channels. The use of identical hashtags, however, creates a single feed of all posts under same tag, regardless of how different the advertised goods or services may be. Unlike in the physical world, where businesses can stake out non-overlapping niches for unrelated goods or services, the tag itself acts as an advertising channel on social media platforms. It remains to be seen how this functional aspect of hashtags will be weighed by the courts in the consumer confusion analysis.
As competition for attention among social media users increases, trending tags may become an increasingly prized commodity. On the other hand, given the ephemeral nature of some hashtags and the fleeting popularity of social media fads, companies should consider the long-term viability of a particular hashtag before expending time and resources to protect it. In any event, before adopting hashtags for social media campaigns, it is imperative to research potential conflicts, which may include trademark clearance searches to identify conflicting uses. And if a hashtag has already become an effective marketing tool, it may be time to consider registering it as a trademark.