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Companies which were promised the chance to protect their trade marks from being used as Facebook addresses have been told they can now only do so by signing up for a Facebook page.

When Facebook allowed users to customise web addresses to include their name after the domain name Facebook.com, it said that it was putting protections in place to ensure that trade marks were not used in URLs registered by people who did not own the trade marks.

It set up a process by which companies could pre-register their trade marks to stop other people using URLs which were made up of the trade marks.

Facebook has now written to companies who pre-registered, though, and told them that they cannot protect their intellectual property rights unless they put their firms on Facebook.

"When a username is requested for business or promotional needs, we require it to be associated with a Facebook Page," said an email sent to those who had tried to use the system.

"If you have a Page to claim this username, please provide us with the web address (URL) and we will review your request. If you do not already have a Page, simply click on the 'Create a page' link under the Sign Up section of www.facebook.com," it said.

The policy raises the possibility that companies which thought they had protected their brands from Facebook cybersquatting may now lose that protection.

OUT-LAW.COM asked Facebook if trade marks pre-registered by companies that did not want a Facebook presence would become available for registration by third parties, but the company did not provide an answer.

OUT-LAW.COM also asked Facebook if the supposed trade mark protection strategy was in fact a marketing exercise designed to encourage companies to register a Facebook presence, but the company declined to respond. It pointed instead to the 'frequently asked questions' page related to the URL policy.

When announcing the personalised URLs, Facebook said that it wanted to protect its users against conflict with all intellectual property owners, not just those with Facebook pages.

"[We want] to help our users avoid potential disputes concerning usernames that may be protected by intellectual property rights," said a company explanation of its actions at the time. "In order to do that, we have encouraged rights owners to contact us if they want to reserve/protect certain names."

John MacKenzie, an intellectual property specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that the policy will not help those companies which choose to stay off Facebook.

"This would appear to be brand protection, but with a catch," he said. "Unless brands have a clear social networking strategy they will not want to incur the time and cost associated with maintaining a Facebook page."

"What we need is some clarity as to the protection actually offered and the conditions attached," he said.

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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