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A Lesson In Social Media Sophistication From…Rahm Emanuel?

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Today is an exceptionally important day in my beloved Chicago – the first truly open election for Mayor in over two decades.  The leader in the race to replace retiring Mayor Daley is former congressman, Presidential Chief of Staff, and famed profanity artist Rahm Emanuel.  The Saturday Night Live routines nearly write themselves.

So what on earth does this have to do with social media and the law?

Actually, quite a bit, as Rahm has faced an interesting social media conundrum from the moment he first declared for the race this past September, a problem faced by many businesses every day.  Nearly as soon as his candidacy was rumored in the press, Rahm Emanuel had to deal with an imposter on Twitter, known as @MayorEmanuel.  

Even worse, this imposter was very, very funny.  So funny, in fact, that he quickly garnered thousands of followers.  Several times more, in fact, as Rahm had himself.  Telling caustic tales of surfing Lake Michigan with David Axelrod and Carl the Intern during the big blizzard, and campaign stops in the many neighborhoods of Chicago (while splitting his off-hours between a crawlspace and an igloo), it was hilarious, incredibly NSFW, and incredibly clever.

Now typically when a public figure is faced with an imposter, they run to Twitter to take it down, or (in some extreme cases) run to court.  But Rahm (who is not exactly famous for being a subtle guy) did a much smarter thing.

Nothing.

He didn’t try to take it down, he didn’t sue “John Does 1-20” in a desperate effort to uncover the parodist.  Instead, he got into the spirit of the thing, and mockingly offered $2500 to a charity of the author’s choice if he or she is willing to come forward.  He has apparently learned one of the most difficult lessons for any brand owner (or celebrity): the difference between infringing behavior that should be stopped, and infringing behavior that not only harms no one, but in fact may be beneficial.

Prof. Thomas McCarthy — probably the greatest expert on trademark law of the 20th century — recently spoke at a joint synmposium on trademark law held by the University of San Francisco’s McCarthy Institute and Microsoft.  (To toot my own horn, I moderated the panel on trademark dilution — which was a significant thrill!)  At this conference, which was quite amazing, Prof. McCarthy took many brand owners to task for not understanding this same lesson that Rahm Emanuel seemed to understand instinctively. 

It is very easy to be too aggressive, or not aggressive enough, said Prof. McCarthy, when enforcing your IP rights, especially online.  And that is because too many people don’t spend the necessary time thinking about what they actually will be accomplishing by sending that cease and desist letter.  Did Mastercard really gain anything through its failed effort to stop Ralph Nader from using it’s “Priceless” campaign?  Would Rahm have done his public image any favors by suing an anonymous funny person?  Would it have made him appear petty and overly sensitive?  Does having someone out there making fun of you mean that you actually … matter?

So yes, there are many times that you need to aggressively pursue legal remedies when someone out there is using your brand, or your name.  But think about it first — you may conclude that discretion is the better part of valor.