Has Twitter's aggressive protectionism come too late?

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twitter2Last week, we reported on Tweetmeme’s huge traffic surge, speculating that it could make Tweetmeme a buy target. But it seems that’s not the case: shortly afterwards, Twitter announced it was revamping the very concept of retweeting and launching its own retweet API. You’ll no longer have to use up valuable characters with “RT”, “via” and so on: the retweet will soon appear separately, as a kind of metadata attached to the tweet. So what does this mean for services like Tweetmeme and the upcoming (and somewhat controversialRetweet.com?

Well, firstly, those services will need a bit of a re-write. But they’ll also need to consider whether offering services around retweets makes sense when Twitter has made it clear that retweeting is going to be part of the core product from now on.

All of a sudden, Twitter seems to be quite aggressively establishing its ownership of the terms “tweet” and “retweet”. The web interface just started referring to updates as tweets and Mesiab Labs’ “@retweet” account, which they intended to use for Retweet.com, has been mysteriously suspended. Kevin Mesiab has launched an appeal to “free” the “hostage” account, accusing Twitter of “playing dirty”.

If Twitter does intend to take ownership of Twitter-related vocabulary, which is surely their prerogative, it doesn’t bode well for services like Tweetmeme, whose buttons prominently carry the word “retweet”. Stand by for chaos if Twitter turns nasty. But Retweetgate is just one example of how things are getting a bit sticky for for third-party developers at the moment, and this is about more that just nomenclature: Twitter has begun to issue cease and desist orders to those it believes are potentially infringing on its trademarks, in one case even demanding that a developer not use a blue background on his Twitter profile.

Although it’s understandable Twitter would want to retain ownership of terms that are synonymous with the service, why didn’t they see this coming? Isn’t it now far too late to purge the third-party ecosystem of “tweet” and “retweet”? According to Kevin Mesiab, Mesiab Labs “filed for the mark ‘retweet’ in the USA, prior to Twitter’s application approval for the mark ‘tweet.’ Whether we are granted the trademark, or if Twitter has grounds to assert its own marks against Retweet.com, is not yet clear.”

Is Twitter really going to go after every developer who uses what is now common parlance? And what guarantee do developers have that Twitter won’t move the goalposts again in six months’ time? This certainly provides ammunition to sceptics who say building a business on the back of the microblogging service is crazy.

As Mesiab correctly observes, Twitter is now in an awkward position: while attempting to distance itself from third-party services and protect its trademarks (which it has a legal obligation to do), it cannot afford to alienate third-party developers. Let’s hope that in Twitter’s mad scramble to reassert its authority on key words, colours and functionality, it doesn’t inadvertently screw up the ecosystem upon which so much of its success depends.

  • http://neverodd.co.uk Paul Smith

    Nearly all of Twitter’s functionality and terminology was created by the users, not Twitter, and without third party development it would remain one of the most unintuitive social media platforms there is. Even after all this time, Twitter are yet to come up with a coherent style for the site, or apply even basic rules of web design.

    Twitter owes the majority of its success to others – it would be a real shame if they started flexing their muscle now.

  • hapdaniel

    I build an application.
    I let others fill in the gaps.
    I identify the most popular gaps.
    I build those into the application.
    Saves a lot of hassle.

  • http://blog.flinter.com Steve Flinter

    I wonder whether this kind of approach will affect every property that has used the ‘tweet’ moniker in one way or another?

    I launched semantictweet.com a few months ago, and have not had any communication from Twitter on the issue (yet). Let’s see if that continues.

  • Jonathan

    So, an innovative young company gains the lion’s share of the market and becomes conservative as it matures. Hardly unusual. If a company doesn’t do everything possible to stop that happening, then it’s inevitable. The people at Twitter want some money I guess.

  • Jonathan

    So, an innovative young company gains the lion’s share of the market and becomes conservative as it matures. Hardly unusual. If a company doesn’t do everything possible to stop that happening, then it’s inevitable.

  • http://www.twitter.com/steve_dodd Steve Dodd

    This is a standard practice for all platform players. SAP did the same thing. Sometimes, the more generic services cannot survive this but others will define more and more functionality that may not or cannot be provided by the platfom. The caveat here is monetization. None of these services will survive (including Twitter itself) if they cannot make money. Perhaps the best advice is to begin negotiation with Twitter to buy services while they still have cash to do so.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/garethwong gareth wong

    It is not surprising.

    my limited observation in the ‘internet startup world’ is this:

    1.) enterpreneurs play musical chairs & try to spot.. 2.)+ 3).

    2.) VCs trying to spot and if possible influence 3.)

    3.) consumers (generally well ‘connected’ net-citizen mostly in the developed world) would follow and sometimes help ‘create’ buzz and spot/follow 1.)

    4.) likes of Techcrunch, blogs, and now offline news reports/writers (generally lag by few days & sometimes weeks) above the buzz of 1, 2, and 3.

    Generally, consumers and ‘followers’, and joe blogg, just ‘amazed’ with the fuzz (for those that take times to read the full story) and go on with their lives (they might not yet done the first online transaction with any internet shopping site yet, due to potential mistrust)..

    then at the same time, the limited successful companies (probably based on buzz but not revenue/profit) would look to do

    A.) protect what they have, cos they generally had not strategically plan for the future (like high cap-ex, highly regulated industries like Telecoms) or
    B.) just want to exit by selling to the much more established (mostly listed household names) who sometimes do deals for signalling than real business sense (e.g. ITV purchase & disposal of Friend-ReUnited)..

    for those that exited,

    then I.) if they were in Silicon Valley, due to potential social capital/competition/ or just pure aspirations, would generally invest and re-invest and make more greater successes

    II.) those in Europe, probably just purchase a few holiday homes and most to some tax heavan & semi-retire with a few charitable duties and a few life-style investments..

    Life goes on..


  • jared

    Twitter would be insane to go after these major applications sites like retweet.com and tweetmeme.com, i beleive these two companies both have a lot put into these sites! If Twitter is going to be playing that game they might as well just offer to buy them out, not shut them out.

    It is after all 3rd party applications that really made Twitter what it is.

  • http://www.sashsavic.com Sash

    that’s what happens when you build your app on top of other people’s apps – you lose control.

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  • http://samj.net/ Sam Johnston

    Too bad for Twitter, looks like the horse has already bolted:

    Twitter’s “Tweet” Trademark Torpedoed

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