Social media aren’t just pipelines for the latest news, viral recipe videos, and political rants from your distant relatives. Big companies are keeping a close eye on the conversations happening online — and, increasingly, they’re asserting legal claims to the phrases people use. A University of New Hampshire law professor, Alexandra J. Roberts, tracks the collision of these worlds. She’s researching the ways that companies try to assert trademarks for hashtags, those phrases (#your-idea-here) that Twitter users employ to link their ideas with a broader conversation. And yes, Roberts, 36, runs her own fast-paced Twitter account. You didn’t think animated GIFs and other staples of Web conversation could properly illustrate hardcore questions about corporate trademark and patent law? Think again.
1. Roberts’ work gives her an up-close view of the conflicting ways that big companies approach online communities — trying to hook the next generation of consumers while also keeping their hands wrapped tightly around intellectual property.
“They’re working really hard to try to reach millennials, and they think that’s where the millennials are. Although, by the time the marketers get to the catch phrase or the cool trendy word or even the trendy social media platform, young people are on to the next one.
Another piece of that challenge is corporations applying the rules of old media to the platforms of new media: ‘This is the way we’ve always treated our trademarks, we own it, it’s ours exclusively, we’re going to send cease and desists to anybody who uses it in a way that we don’t like.’ ”
2. Roberts originally wanted to be an English professor and still writes poems.
“To me, it makes sense that if you love poetry and literature, you would also be really interested in trademarks and naming, and ways that people use words, and ways that consumers and the general public use these brands and trademarks to express themselves. . . . It’s kind of a high culture-low culture continuum, right?
You can sit in your ivory tower and talk about poetry and theorize about literature and write books that a couple of other Ivy League professors will also read. Or, you can think about words and naming in the context of trademark law and write things that are relevant to everybody that you know.”
3. She recently penned an article for the social media-obsessed website BuzzFeed that used bits of Internet ephemera to argue that the Patent and Trademark Office is giving too much deference to corporate trademark requests for hashtagged phrases.
“I wanted to create [something] that would basically distill a 75-page article into a 30-second read, with GIFs and pictures — something that anybody could read and understand with no background in law and no background in what a trademark is. So for me, that was a really useful exercise. I like to think about ways to make our work accessible and make our work meaningful to more than just ourselves in an echo chamber.
And of course, the other piece of that is you would ideally love to shape and influence the law as it evolves. So the other thing I’m hoping to do is get an audience with the USPTO and talk to the trademark examiners about the decisions they’re making about hashtag trademarks.”
4. As a power Twitter user, she has some opinions about what Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey should and shouldn’t do.
“I am kind of horrified at the prospect of getting rid of the length limit. I think the thing that makes Twitter unique is that cap. And we who use it know that sometimes it’s really hard work to be concise enough and edit yourself down enough to make your comment fit. But that’s what makes it really readable and really conversational.
One of my favorite things to do with Twitter is to live-tweet conferences, which are usually about IP, and are usually academics presenting some pretty complex stuff. And for me, to try to distill what they’re saying into a couple of tweets, that’s been a really valuable challenge. . . .
My poems are actually very short. Maybe that’s not surprising!”
5. Roberts was impressed by the new HBO movie “Confirmation,” which portrays Anita Hill’s testimony in the Senate hearings that confirmed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“Anita Hill was a 35-year-old law professor when she went through that, so I identified with that. I think it all happened in ‘91, so I was 11. You were kind of vaguely aware of it in the backdrop, and maybe your parents tried to talk you through it. But it’s really interesting to revisit as an adult, and also as a feminist, as somebody who has been in the workplace for a while. . . .
They were questioning her: ‘Well, if things were as you describe, why would you have stayed? Why wouldn’t you have gotten into another job? Why wouldn’t you have spoken up sooner? How could you even live with yourself?
And I think every woman watching that is like, you just do. You suck it up.”