Who owns the hastag? #nottwitter #notyou

The right to copyright and tag a tag

Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines music video is genius. I’m kidding, it’s not, but it did get me thinking. He obviously wanted us to glorify it using the almighty #thicke (like, ‘why doesn’t Pharell age? #thicke’), but was that using Twitter, Instagram or some other rising social media platform? Because at this rate I’m not too sure anymore.

And that’s where it got me thinking of two more things.

1. Does Twitter get a dollar every time some other platform uses the hashtag? Wait, does Twitter even own the hashtag?

2. In the very likely event that I come up with the COOLEST hastag ever (err… #Susanalbumparty), can I claim it as mine? Because you know what they say, if you like it then you should’ve put a ring trademark on it.

So… does Twitter own the #?

On August 23 2007 Chris Messina, former Google designer, proposed the idea of using the ‘pound’ symbol to create ‘groups’ on Twitter.

How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
– Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007

Revolutionary, right? But does that mean he owns it?

It’s been argued that nobody owns the hashtag, that it’s free of use and has the potential to outlive just as many platforms as the ‘@’ symbol did (remember that little guy?) (Brandom, 2013). So if nobody owns it, and Messina didn’t ‘invent’ it, then can he technically put a patent on it? Nevertheless, the opportunity was there. Messina could’ve applied for one but he didn’t and he explains why, turns out Twitter rejected the idea.

“[Twitter] told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.’” – Chris Messina, inventor of the Twitter hashtag.

And by fetch they meant hashtag.

So if Twitter can’t, then can you legally own a #?

In a nutshell technically yes, but no. Let me explain.

You can’t legally own a trademark like you can legally own the rights to a song. Yes you may have stayed up all night thinking of that brilliant tag and may well and truly consider it a very valuable piece of intellectual property, but realistically you can’t and Deborah Sweeeny, CEO of MyCorporation, couldn’t have said it any better. Quite simply, you weren’t the first person to come up with that combination of words, and I’m sorry but you won’t be able to stop anyone else from using them either.


But fear not, you can protect your hashtag by slapping a trademark on it. But there’s always the fine print. According to secureyourtrademark.com  you can trademark a hashtag so long as you demonstrate that you’re using it to promote or sell your products or services. Now this only prevents companies within the same industry from using your hashtag to compete with you, it does not however…

  •  Prevent people from using it on Twitter.
  •  Give you legal recourse if someone uses it in a way that you disagree with… a la McDonald’s #McDStories?

Oh and Twitter doesn’t respond to trademark violations, so basically you’re on your own…

What Is not a Trademark Policy Violation?

Using another’s trademark in a way that has nothing to do with the product or service for which the trademark was granted is not a violation of Twitter’s trademark policy.

Unless of course it “misleads or confuses others with regards to the brand or business affiliation”. But we would never do that, right? #freeuse



Brandom, R (2013) ‘Who owns the hashtag? (It isn’t Twitter)’, The Verge, http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/7/3960580/hashtags-are-bigger-than-twitter-vine-tumblr-instagram

Sweeny, D (2012) ‘Can you legally own a Twitter hashtag’, Social Media Today, http://socialmediatoday.com/deborah-sweeney/480650/can-you-legally-own-twitter-hashtag


One response to “Who owns the hastag? #nottwitter #notyou

  1. Very witty while still informative. The hashtag does seem like a tricky trademark to wrap your head around but nonetheless you presented a well reasoned evaluation while providing evidence on the issue. Well done!


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