Has Twitter's aggressive protectionism come too late?

twitter2Last week, we reported on Tweetmeme’s huge traffic surge, speculating that it could make Tweetmeme a buy target. But it seems that’s not the case: shortly afterwards, Twitter announced it was revamping the very concept of retweeting and launching its own retweet API. You’ll no longer have to use up valuable characters with “RT”, “via” and so on: the retweet will soon appear separately, as a kind of metadata attached to the tweet. So what does this mean for services like Tweetmeme and the upcoming (and somewhat controversialRetweet.com?

Well, firstly, those services will need a bit of a re-write. But they’ll also need to consider whether offering services around retweets makes sense when Twitter has made it clear that retweeting is going to be part of the core product from now on.

All of a sudden, Twitter seems to be quite aggressively establishing its ownership of the terms “tweet” and “retweet”. The web interface just started referring to updates as tweets and Mesiab Labs’ “@retweet” account, which they intended to use for Retweet.com, has been mysteriously suspended. Kevin Mesiab has launched an appeal to “free” the “hostage” account, accusing Twitter of “playing dirty”.

If Twitter does intend to take ownership of Twitter-related vocabulary, which is surely their prerogative, it doesn’t bode well for services like Tweetmeme, whose buttons prominently carry the word “retweet”. Stand by for chaos if Twitter turns nasty. But Retweetgate is just one example of how things are getting a bit sticky for for third-party developers at the moment, and this is about more that just nomenclature: Twitter has begun to issue cease and desist orders to those it believes are potentially infringing on its trademarks, in one case even demanding that a developer not use a blue background on his Twitter profile.

Although it’s understandable Twitter would want to retain ownership of terms that are synonymous with the service, why didn’t they see this coming? Isn’t it now far too late to purge the third-party ecosystem of “tweet” and “retweet”? According to Kevin Mesiab, Mesiab Labs “filed for the mark ‘retweet’ in the USA, prior to Twitter’s application approval for the mark ‘tweet.’ Whether we are granted the trademark, or if Twitter has grounds to assert its own marks against Retweet.com, is not yet clear.”

Is Twitter really going to go after every developer who uses what is now common parlance? And what guarantee do developers have that Twitter won’t move the goalposts again in six months’ time? This certainly provides ammunition to sceptics who say building a business on the back of the microblogging service is crazy.

As Mesiab correctly observes, Twitter is now in an awkward position: while attempting to distance itself from third-party services and protect its trademarks (which it has a legal obligation to do), it cannot afford to alienate third-party developers. Let’s hope that in Twitter’s mad scramble to reassert its authority on key words, colours and functionality, it doesn’t inadvertently screw up the ecosystem upon which so much of its success depends.