Ikea vs Superfans: how paranoid trademark lawyers make everything suck
In 2014, IKEA, the Swedish-based global furniture company, sent a cease-and-desist letter to a blogger by the name of Jules Yap. Yap ran the extremely popular website IKEAhackers.net, which helped people “hack” IKEA furniture into new, creative, and unexpected designs. The site was already almost a decade old when IKEA’s lawyers demanded that Yap hand over the URL. What follows is a case study from Superfandom: How Our Obsessions are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are.
When fans act in unexpected, uncontrollable ways, such as using the brand name for their own purposes, the proactive solution is often the same as IKEA’s: to file a legal claim to protect intellectual property. It isn’t a wrong thing to do per se - the legal side of brand management is a serious business - but US trademark and copyright regulations aren’t especially helpful when it comes to managing fan expectations.
“I don’t have an issue with them protecting their trademark but I think they could have handled it better,” Yap told the Washington Post. “I am a person, not a corporation. A blogger who obviously is on their side.”
Fans don’t need to be treated with kid gloves, but they do need to be treated differently than people who are trying to make a quick buck. Sending a cease-and-desist to someone squatting on a domain name like IKEA-furniture.com makes sense. In the case of a blogger running a fan site, even one making money off the site, a polite letter opening a conversation might be a better option. Yap’s lawyer was able to negotiate a deal with IKEA allowing her to continue operating the site in a noncommercial fashion, without on-site advertising to support her efforts. As soon as the agreement was made public, fans of the site exploded.
Cory Doctorow, an author and co-editor of Boing Boing, tore into IKEA: “Ikea’s C&D is, as a matter of law, steaming bullshit. There’s no trademark violation here: the use of Ikea’s name is purely factual. The fact that money changes hands on Ikeahackers (which Ikea’s lawyers seem most upset about) has no bearing on the trademark analysis. There is no chance of confusion or dilution from Ikeahackers’ use of the mark. This is pure bullying, an attempt at censorship. . . .”
Brand hijacking is such a terrifying phenomenon that the smallest possibility is often enough to send brand owners running to their legal departments. Overreactions to completely innocent, or even helpful, fan behavior are a common cause for a fandom to rebel. Many a fan meltdown could have been avoided by a deep breath and five minutes of introspection on the part of the fan object.
Doctorow, today an advocate for copyright and trademark legal reform, points out what is obvious to everyone except, it appears, corporate lawyers: “You can get the same benefit from offering a royalty-free license as you get from threatening a lawsuit.”
Many organizations have begun to replace the cease-and- desist approach to fan management with one that brings fans into the fold: if the organization is largely happy with the fan’s activities, it always has the option of making the fan’s activity official. Sometimes giving fans permission to use the trademark, with proper controls and oversight, lets everyone win. If that seems too daring for corporate counsel to accept, there’s always the old fallback: good old-fashioned disclaimers. They might seem boring in a world where dramatic cease-and-desist orders are the norm, but they do get the job done. Asking a fan group to make it clear that they aren’t affiliated with or funded by, or have anything at all to do with, the company may make a lot of concerns go away.
Fear is a terrible reason to lash out at the people who love something. And fear also robs the brand owners of the fruits of their labors. And it pisses everyone off.
Fighting for a cause is exciting and romantic, and it’s even more true when, as in many cases of cease-and-desists, one side does indeed have the moral high ground. When a fan group truly has an axe to grind, there is no good way to head it off. Techniques of appeasement, such as giving something and then taking it away, will only further fuel an “us vs. them” mentality.
It’s important to note that, in many cases, simply acquiescing to fan demands isn’t foolproof either. Despite all of their knowledge, fans don’t know what’s best for their fan object. They only know what’s best for its audience. Often the two are the same, but occasionally they’re not. When a brand placates its fan group by giving in to a demand, everyone will feel really excited and powerful and good about what they’ve done together . . . briefly. Then the fans will lose interest and move on to other exciting issues, while the fan object tries to cope with the long-term consequences of its decision.
In situations where fan dictates simply can’t be met, the best course of action for fan-object owners might be to humanize the situation. To remind fans that there are real human people involved, that they and the fans are all on the same side, that they understand the fans’ concerns, and to explain why they’ve made their decision. It’s important for people to be reminded that both sides of the discussion are made up of fellow fans, wanting to do what’s best for their shared passion.
If fans are able to view the fan-object owner as another member of their fan group instead of a corporate overlord, there’s much less to fear from transparency. As Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams put it in their classic book Wikinomics, “If you trust your customers, you don’t have to control them.” Fan groups may wobble, but they do tend to right themselves in the end. If an organization has instilled the right social norms into its superfans, it should be able to explain itself as best it can and allow the community to handle it from there. That’s what it’s there for.
The best course in every potentially explosive situation is to think carefully about what that transparency is going to reveal. Owners should decide if it aligns with what they know about their fans’ feelings and motivations. It requires being deliberate. It means considering who these fans are, where they sit within their fan group’s hierarchy, what aspect of their identity is caught up in the fan object, and what they feel they’re getting out of their fanlike activities.
Will this transparency make fans feel like insiders? Or will it make them feel betrayed by the insiders?
Less than a week after Yap went public, IKEA was forced to backpedal. “We want to clarify that we deeply regret the situation at hand with IKEAhackers,” IKEA told a reporter at Yahoo. Yap was invited to visit the company’s home offices, and, in a meeting with the CEO - the CEO! - of Inter IKEA Systems B.V., they ultimately forged an agreement allowing Yap to continuing operating the site, ads and all.
“Yay! Pop the lingonberry juice,” Yap wrote.
Adapted from 'Superfandom: How Our Obsessions are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are' by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer. Copyright © 2017 by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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