Could you possibly be sued for using a hashtag? The Little Italy Street Art Project found out the answer is yes when they were sent a cease-and-desist letter by bottled water company Wat-aah for using the hashtag #takingbackthestreets.
The LISA Project is a non-profit organization that organizes street artists to paint vibrant murals in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood. To promote the art work on social media they’ve used the hashtag #takingbackthetreets, an allusion, perhaps, to the days when the Lower East Side was overrun with crime and drugs.
Last September, the non-profit received a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers of Wat-aah, a bottle water company, for their use of the hashtag. A lawyer for Wat-aah said the term “taking back the streets” was trademarked for use in their own, similar mural campaign which encourages kids to ditch soda for water and by using the hashtag, the LISA Project was in violation of the trademark. Wat-aah apparently lacks a research team.
The New York Times reports Dezmon Gilmore, a spokesperson for Wat-aah, was pressured into sending the cease-and-desist letter by the foundation sponsoring their ‘Taking Back The Streets’ campaign to avoid any confusion between the two mural projects. Gilmore said it wasn’t meant to be malicious – because cease-and-desist letters are typically friendly in nature – it was just a precaution. No further legal action has been taken. Not that Wat-aah had much ground to stand on in the first place.
Richard Lehv, a trademark lawyer who spoke with The New York Times on the matter said he’s never heard of a hashtag being trademarked. “Yes, you can protect a phrase like ‘taking back the streets,’ but you don’t get a monopoly for any and all purposes. My understanding is putting a hashtag on something is a way of letting Instagram or Twitter index it. It speeds up a search. It doesn’t mean anyone owns it.”
Though the LISA Project declined to participate in a fight with the company and came out of it unharmed, the cease-and-deist letter blew up in Wat-aah’s face. The aggressive act drew attention to their charity project, particularly, how much money was being raised in a related auction and where it was going. This March, 69 artists donated work for an auction in which proceeds would go to the Partnership for a Healthier America. So far, none of the money raised in the auction has been received by the Partnership for a Healthier America.
For more information on the LISA Project or to make a donation, visit their web site at www.lisaprojectnyc.org.
Wat-aah Battles Neighborhood Art Non-Profit Over Hashtag Use [Art Nerd New York]