Carat in Plot to Take Man's Facebook Identity; a Lesson for Agencies in IP Rights

Last Updated Jan 25, 2010 12:17 PM EST

Carat, the media buying agency that's part of troubled Aegis Group (AGS.L), tried to bribe a Facebook user with a free supply of Coke Zero to persuade him to give up his vanity Facebook address, "Facebook.com/harman," so they could use it for their client Harman International (HAR).

Ultimately, Facebook was persuaded to take the URL from Harman Bajwa (pictured) under cover of a made-up policy violation. Media coverage from TechCrunch has persuaded Facebook, Carat and its client to give the poor guy his name and URL back.

It's a lesson in the poorly understood but important difference between having a good brand and owning all the rights to the name of that brand -- a topic that agency types are frequently confused by. In sum, a brand can only claim legitimate intellectual property rights to all uses of its name if that name is unique and no one else uses it. A good example is Google (GOOG). But many brands stem from names that are either generic or already in use by other businesses: America's Best and Smith & Co. would be two examples. "Harman" turns out to be the name of quite a lot of people, including Harman Bajwa, who obtained the Facebook vanity URL first, and was not trading on it -- another way to violate IP rights. Harman International doesn't own its brand outright even in the commercial sphere There's a stovemaker named Harman and a firm of lawyers with the same name.

Here's the message Bajwa received from Carat:

From: Tyler Bahl To: Harman Bajwa Sent: Fri, January 22, 2010 11:25:21 AM Subject: Harman

Hi Harman,

Thanks for accepting my friend request on Facebook.

I'm the emerging media strategist at Carat in Boston and I work on the Harman International account. We're launching our first initiative in partnership with the GRAMMYS on Monday. Harman International is looking to obtain the vanity url facebook.com/harman for their Facebook fan page.

We are currently working with Facebook to reclaim (http://www.facebook.com/help/?page=896#/help.php?page=899) the username, but I wanted to explore opportunities to work with you to acquire the name. In the past, we have offered product in exchange for social domain names. One case in mind was for the new movie Avatar, we were able to give promotional items to the owner of twitter.com/avtr for Coke Zero.

Do you have time to connect today to discuss this opportunity in more detail?

Best,

-tb

What a douchebag! Bahl is basically saying, "Hey, will you give up your online identity for a can of Coke?" And how feeble is that for a bribe -- Coke Zero! At least offer him something valuable, like cash.

Bajwa then received this message from Facebook (see image below):

Please Read This! Warning

The username you selected was removed for violating Facebook's policies. A Facebook username should have a clear connection to one's identity. In addition, impersonating anyone or anything is prohibited. If you see other people with usernames that do not accurately represent their real names, it is only because they have not yet been removed for misuse.

To select a new username, please visit the following link:

www.facebook.com/username

Thanks for your understanding,

The Facebook Team

Apparently, Harman's own name was not enough of "a clear connection to one's identity" for Facebook.

Facebook, embarrassed by the publicity, has since apologized and given Bajwa his page back:

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Mike. We made a mistake in this instance and are in the process of returning the username to Mr. Bajwa. To be clear, the move was not driven by monetary reasons, rather trademark protection. We strive to protect trademarks from 'squatters' -- those who try to take protected terms with no legitimate claim. The message Harman received was along those lines, but clearly not applicable. Once we understood the nature of our error, we moved quickly to resolve it. We want to apologize to Mr. Bajwa for being overzealous in our efforts and regret the disruption to his account.