The internet and social media have allowed people, businesses, and brands to communicate and interact more than ever before. As much benefit as that brings, it also brings significant risks to the reputation of both people and brands. The internet allows people to post using a pseudonym, or to appropriate someone else’s name. The appropriated name could be that of a prominent individual or (“public figure”), but online “persona hijacking” can affect anyone.
Generally, the motive of most persona hijacking is profit or fraud. Someone may appropriate the name or likeness of a famous person to profit from public goodwill towards that person. It could include setting up social media accounts, e-mail addresses, or websites using the person’s name, or some other effort to spoof the person’s identity. For a person who is not famous, persona hijacking may serve a function much like identity theft, using that person’s credentials to obtain, for example, fraudulent credit.
In some cases, the purpose of persona hijacking is to submit a person’s name to criticism or parody. The line between legitimate commentary and unlawful harassment, however, can be very fine, and parody can easily become a “false light” portrayal of a person. Use of a person’s name or likeness for the purpose of criticism or parody may, in certain limited circumstances, be protected by the First Amendment. In other cases, it may constitute unlawful infringement of a person’s trademark rights or right of publicity.
A person who uses their own name in commerce, usually someone prominent in business or entertainment, may obtain trademark protection. This generally prohibits others from using the name commercially. For most people, the right of publicity prohibits use of their name or likeness without their consent, especially for commercial purposes. The Fair Use doctrine, however, may allow use of a name or likeness for legitimate criticism or parody, where it is clear that the work is not originating from the person being appropriated.
You can take several steps to protect yourself from online persona hijacking:
1. Create your own official web presence: This could include setting up social media accounts and registering domain names using your name, or creating a website for yourself. This establishes your online identity and makes impostors easier to isolate.
3. Evict cybersquatters: The federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) prohibits use of domain names that are “confusingly similar to” or “dilutive of” a person’s name. The Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP), administered by ICANN, provides a non-litigation-based process for claiming rights to a domain name.
4. Remain vigilant: Keep an eye on the internet to see if your name or likeness appears anywhere without your consent. Even if something does not seem harmful, you should watch it. Set up Google Alerts for your name in order to receive updates if your name pops up somewhere new.
At the Law Offices of Salar Atrizadeh, we guide California businesses and individuals through the regulatory and transactional pitfalls of the internet, using our legal knowledge and technological skill to create innovative solutions for our clients. Contact us today online or at (310) 694-3034 to set up a confidential consultation.
More Blog Posts:
Prevention is Key: 7 Ways Businesses Can Avoid Litigation, Internet Lawyer Blog, July 12, 2012
Protecting Your Intellectual Property from Online Copyright Infringement, Internet Lawyer Blog, June 21, 2012
How to Resolve an Internet Domain Name Dispute, Internet Lawyer Blog, June 15, 2012
Photo credit: ‘Content of tweets pie chart’ by Quillaja (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.