As social media becomes an increased presence in marketing and branding for today’s businesses, the importance of who owns what comes to the forefront. A legal battle involving Twitter, the owners of the James Dean estate and five anonymous users of the social media network could set the precedent for how copyright and trademark infringement is handled in the future.

In 2009, a fan of the late actor James Dean set up a Twitter account with the handle @JamesDean to post about his love and appreciation the actor’s films and personal story. That man, as well as four other John Does using variations of the name, is now finding himself named in a lawsuit claiming trademark infringement between Twitter and the estate of James Dean, which is being represented by CMG Worldwide.

The lawsuit alleges that the star’s image and name are being used without authorization, but Twitter has fired back saying the social media platform investigated the account and found that it did not violate Twitter’s Trademark Policy because it was not misleading or confusing. It also appears that the intent of the user may play a role in how the suit is handled. Because the man is only using it for fan purposes and not trying to make money off of the name, the case becomes more complicated.

The federal Anti-Cybersquatting Privacy Act normally covers these types of situations because it was designed to protect against the unauthorized use of celebrity names on the Internet. The act, however, only applies to Web domains, not usernames or Twitter “handles.” The chairman and chief executive officer of CMG stated that the owners of the estates of celebrities like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Babe Ruth have invested significant time in their brands and that the person’s name, likeness and other images are all intellectual property.

Businesses and companies across California and the rest of the country are watching this case closely to see what changes to the copyright and trademark laws could be made as a result. The protection of intellectual property is an important aspect of any brand’s marketing strategy, and as the law struggles to keep up with the fast-paced changes of technology, understanding how to guard against these types of situations is vital.

Source: The Star Press, “James Dean Inc. suing Twitter over fan accounts use of Hoosier” Tim Evans, Feb. 11, 2014