The protections afforded by intellectual property law have immensely benefitted technology companies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not sometimes problematic. From ridiculous patent lawsuits to reverse domain name hijacking, IP is often a means to questionable ends.

Unfortunately, when it comes to trademark, some companies are making abuse all too easy.

Case in point: Tumblr’s treatment of well-known Microsoft employee Danah Boyd’s account. Yesterday, Boyd reported that the popular online publishing platform provider revoked her account subdomain, zephoria.tumblr.com, and handed it over to an internet marketing firm called Zephoria.

Following a post on her blog at zephoria.org, Boyd, who commands quite a large social media following, was contacted by Tumblr.

The company’s CEO, David Karp, confirmed that zephoria.tumblr.com had been taken away from Boyd due to a trademark complaint. According to Karp, Boyd was notified by email about the complaint, but never responded.

According to Boyd’s account, Tumblr president John Maloney indicated that her Tumblr subdomain was transferred to Zephoria a mere 72 hours after the notification was sent.

If this was an isolated incident, it would be easy to write it off as a mistake. But it isn’t. As BetaBeat notes, Tumblr has quickly handed over account subdomains to trademark holders in the past, suggesting that the company is a little bit too eager to pull the trigger when it comes to trademark complaints. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to call this apparent policy what it is: foolish.

If zephoria.tumblr.com was home to a spamblog, or otherwise questionable in nature, it might have been appropriate to move a little bit more quickly. But that wasn’t the case. Here, Tumblr should have easily observed that not only was the account home to legitimate content, it was owned by a recognizable name in the social media world.

Unfortunately, incidents like these are only becoming more common. While companies like Tumblr may have an ethical and legal obligation to take IP complaints seriously, at the same time they should also remember that they’re not judge and jury either.

In many cases, both parties in a dispute over a domain, subdomain or account name could have intellectual property rights that arguably give them a legitimate interest in the said domain, subdomain or account name. In other cases, the mere existence of some intellectual property right doesn’t necessarily give one party the right to take a domain, subdomain or account name. There is plenty of room for abuse.

The bottom line: service providers should tread carefully when IP disputes come knocking. A little bit of common sense goes a long way. This means:

  • When a complaint is received, it should be thoroughly evaluated. Is it legitimate? Are there questions about the nature of the complaint?
  • The subject of the complaint should be given a reasonable amount of time to respond. When contact fails, alternative methods of reaching the party should be explored. In many cases, it isn’t very difficult to track down another email address, phone number or Twitter account.
  • When in doubt, involve counsel. Few companies like paying attorneys, but it’s often risky to assume that a complaint is valid and take adverse action against another party who may also have intellectual rights of their own.