Can You Legally Own a Twitter Hashtag?
Nearly five years ago in August 2007, Chris Messina Tweeted on his Twitter account 'how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups? As in #barcamp [msg]?' It was the creation of the first hashtag, noticeably distinguishable for using the pound symbol as a prefix with a brief phrase or keyword following after that could be easily identified and trended on Twitter. For Messina though, it was meant to be a way of grouping conversations on Twitter where the vast majority of them were just that: vast. It was difficult to track what was being said at all and how to find out who was talking about what, period. Hashtags gave the site a sense of organization that is often referred to folksonomic, in that it helped users to find information and understand it.
Created organically by Twitter users, hashtags go beyond just fun topics to see trending online. They can be created by anyone, for anyone, to discuss anything in any one Tweet you send out. Tweeting out a tweet that is followed up by a particularly popular hashtag for the occasion like #oscars will get seen by more than just the people who follow you too since chances are you're tweeting that one out on Oscar night along with millions of other Twitter users. And if it's a particularly snappy tweet, it may get retweeted into some fairly influential Twitter hands who will pass the message onto their followers. The followers in turn may start following you and tweeting at you as well- and all because you included a hashtag.
Predicting what kinds of hashtags will take off and become the next biggest online meme is anyone's guess but the power is in your hands to create it. So if the power is in your hands to create a hashtag, then why can't you buy it? Can you own a hashtag if it tailored specifically for your usage, like a URL address?
The answer here is quite simple. No. You can't legally own a hashtag in a traditional sense that is for your private use only. But there are other methods to protecting a hashtag you can employ when going into creating one, particularly if you plan on promoting your business heavily with one.
Distinction + Regular Use = #goldenrule
The golden rule for when you first start creating a successful hashtag is to use a distinctive and short word or phrase paired along with regular usage. No regular use, the hashtag will fade away into the Twittersphere's obscurity. No unique phrases that are self explanatory as to what you're doing, why include it with a tweet? I could have called this the #goldenhashtagrule but look at that. Too long, doesn't roll off the tongue easily, distinct yes but not in a catchy way.
#goldenrule it is, even though a quick Twitter search reveals that I'm not the first person to use that phrase by any means. And because it is such a common phrase, even if I did come up with the pairing first, I still wouldn't be able to stop other Twitter users from using the hashtag for their own personal reasons.
Just as not every tweet for #apple is a reference to the fruit, make your hashtag unique. Tie it into your business by including either your brand name or initials into the hashtag and encouraging followers to use it to drive conversation over to you. And make sure that it isn't already being used in a radically different capacity already online though it may be impossible to avoid this at times.
Ready to actually register your hashtag? Visit Twubs.com, an online directory of hashtags that are categorized within a registry that allows for the tag to be found by other followers interested in the same topic. The registry at Twubs also works to minimize the likelihood of your creative hashtag being in actuality someone else's genius idea that is already in use and to prevent another organization from using the hashtag you 'own.' Of course, this site doesn't guarantee that your hashtag won't be squatted on though.
Buy the Domain of Your Hashtag
While effective currently on Twitter, hashtags have yet to fully make the jump to other social networks which has some catchy hashtag creators buying domains for their phrases. In this case, you truly do own what you coined, especially since Twitter itself is conducted in real time. What's trending this week may be old news next week but you can help leverage what trended on your own terms post 15 minutes of Twitter fame.
Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation, an online filing services company that specializes in incorporations and LLCs. Find her online at mycorporation.com and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.