The Ambiguity Of The Tweet

Courtney Love might have been the first celebrity in a Twitter-related legal dustup. But she will certainly not be the last.

As Twitter grows, it's inevitably attracting complaints. In the most recent high-profile example, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently sent a cease and desist letter to a blogger who is lobbying on Twitter for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act -- a law aimed at making it easier for workers to organize.

The blogger apparently used Gingrich's name in the tweet as follows: "Join @newtgingrich ... in signing the Freedom Not Fear EFCA petition."

He complains that the use of his name, and link to his Twitter feed, conveys the wrong impression that he supports the union-backed law. Gingrich also asserts that the tweet constituted trademark infringement, violation of his publicity rights, false advertising and a host of other legal wrongs.



The Citizen Media Law Project mocks the cease-and-desist letter's legal claims, but also asks an intriguing question: "What degree of clarity can we (and should we) expect from 'gripe' tweets, given the 140 character limit that is hard coded into the medium?"

Consider, when bloggers want to poke fun at public figures, it's usually obvious from the context that the sites aren't affiliated with the people they're discussing. And if that's not apparent, bloggers can add a disclaimer to the top of the site that spells it out. But it's not yet clear how Twitter users can work those disclaimers into the limited space that's available.

Cyberlaw expert Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, says that this type of problem has come up before. "Whenever there's a new way of presenting information, it takes a while for people to sort through the conventions of that information source," he says.

For instance, he says, people today typically understand what the words "sponsored link" mean in the Google results, but that wasn't always the case.

"We see this with every new interface that gets developed on the Internet," he says. "It takes a while for people to catch up."

2 comments about "The Ambiguity Of The Tweet".
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  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, May 21, 2009 at 6:39 p.m.

    Kimberley Isbell of Citizen Media Law (@Kisbell) attempts to obscure the core trademark issue with her "kitchen sink" argument and asserts a dubious "everyone knows..." argument about @replies.

    While EFCA supporters may be in on the joke, trademark law is clear whether the instance is three words or 140 characters.

    Of course, EFCA also claims "binding arbitration" will be a fair way to resolve impasses between labor and business owners, knowing full well that the costs of arbitration have escalated recently to be on par with the costs of full-blown litigation. That too is a knee-slapper, especially if you're an EFCA attorney.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 21, 2009 at 8:36 p.m.

    It's beyond stupidity to claim the 140 character limit is REAL, because someone can tweet "Hey, click on this URL to read my lengthy crazy thoughts--[link-to-really-long-diatribe]" which effectively makes the shortest tweet produce page after page of libelous comments and photos. Obviously the people behind this so-called defense are either inexperienced with Twitter, or intentionally duplicitous, or stupid (or all three)

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