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back to article Don't get sued or cuffed on Twitter: Read these top 10 pitfalls

Debates in Parliament, home visits from the police and distressed celebrities have all left tweeters a little unsure as to what is and what is not acceptable by law on Twitter. The list of those offending and those offended keeps growing with recent high profile reports referring to Louise Mensch, Tom Daley, Guy Adams, Steve …

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Windows

Tweet in haste...

Repent at leisure

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Or tweet

and be damned.

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Def
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Happy

Surely you'll be safe if you just end every tweet with 'Allegedly'.

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Given that someone was sued under defamation laws having started with "In My Opinion" (haven't time to look up link, but was linked to in a fairly recent Reg article) I suspect using "Allegedly" wouldn't help much. Using the word 'Alleged' suggests you heard it from somewhere, so they'd probably sue you and then demand to know where you heard it (which would be your defense, but would also open the source - if any - to a potential lawsuit).

Far better to stick to satire or strictly factual for anything that might be seen by the world at large. I hear and see a lot of things that are funny in the real-world, but if written down (taking the signs of intent away) could get people into trouble.

Taking Paul Chambers as an example, had he been saying it face-to-face, the person on the other end would probably have seen a cheeky smile and thought "what a joker". Put it into text and the intent is less obvious. There may be other reasons they persued Mr Chambers but you get the idea.

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Big Brother

In short, as a member of the public you better pass through the plausible deniability ritual formerly used by court jesters lest they be shifted to an oubliette.

"DID I HEAR CRITICISM"

"Certainly not, oh state-connected one! I was just explaining a dream..."

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Or, you know, don't say anything you wouldn't say to someone's face in public (i.e., with witnesses).

And it's also worth remembering that sarcasm/irony/etc. are difficult to express through text - especially when u dnt spl prply

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"Far better to stick to satire or strictly factual for anything that might be seen by the world at large"

Or, better yet, just don't use Twatter at all!!

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"Taking Paul Chambers as an example, had he been saying it face-to-face, the person on the other end would probably have seen a cheeky smile and thought "what a joker". Put it into text and the intent is less obvious. There may be other reasons they persued Mr Chambers but you get the idea."

From the appeal judgement ([2012] EWHC 2157):

"There was no evidence before the Crown Court to suggest that any of the followers of the appellant’s “tweet”, or indeed anyone else who may have seen the “tweet” posted on the appellant’s time line, found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism is real, even minimally alarming."

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There may be other reasons they persued Mr Chambers but you get the idea.

There was a reason I wrote that - I was using it as an example and didn't want to delve into yet another debate if the rights and wrongs. I'm well aware of the judgement, but it was a useful example as to how the removal of all body language can change the perceived message. The rights and wrongs of the case are another matter entirely!

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"Our homeopathic water will cure cancer allegedly"

Will get you into just as much trouble (a stern telling off from the Advertising Standards Authority) as if you missed off the word "allegedly". It is in breach of the Cancer Act and the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations.

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Don't use ...

Right on Sir, right on!

I opened an account when it came out, visit it twice a year, have left four tweets.

I just don't get it. Though I must confess to a near daily facebook visit, with even a post every now and again.

Oh another even more damning confession, I write Rails applications, and give Twitter as a popular and

successful example of one at times. Naughty me.

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Mushroom

Two Tweets

Make a Twat

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may also offend UK criminal law

I know it's the correct way of saying it, but this still always makes me wonder how a law can be offended!

Interesting reading though, something that I thought was missing from Number 1 though is a description of some of the things (IANAL) that you can do - as I understand it.

If you sell fizzy drinks, using #cocacola is a bad idea, you'll probably get done for trademark infringement.

If you operate in a market not used by cocacola you may be able to use it, but would have to rely on a defence that no-one would be confused between a fizzy drink and gloves (or whatever you are selling).

If you're not selling anything, you should be safe (assuming you don't fall under a different pitfall) whether you're tweeting #cococola sucks or anything else (#pepsi's better than #cocacola but #Irn-Bru beats them both?).

IANAL so you might want to check this before relying on my suggestion though! Hate to see anyone sued!

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You do seem to understand and express the point about trademarks and hashtags better than the article author. examples of what not to do are appropriate. But I suppose the point is where a tag incorporates a trademark or a version thereof such as #cocacolahascocainein (Coca-Cola does not have cocaine in, as far as I know, not since they changed the recipe (like a hundred years ago or something); when they started making it, people thought it was a vitamin, or something. But they didn't put very much in, which seems a bit of a cheat.)

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A fair point, though that would come under the defamatory heading rather than the trademark per se (though of course the use of the identifying trademark is key to making it defamatory).

The bit that's semi-scary is that huge organisations have fingers in many pies, so although you may think you are operating in a different market, that may not be the case. Originally I was going to use trainers as an example, but then it occurred to me that it's not impossible that some company (as far as I know there isn't) under the Coca-Cola umbrella does make trainers. If that were the case, you'd probably have to try and argue that the average person wouldn't be confused because they wouldn't know that Coca-Cola make trainers.

What makes it worse, in some ways, is that if they become aware of your improper use they have to do something about it or face the risk of later attempts failing due to 'abandonment' of the TM. There are areas that you can take a calculated risk on whether someone might bother to sue, but TM law means that if they become aware they'll have little choice but to formally address the issue.

Still, I can't see the alternative being better. I can't help think Patenty stuff might be less of a mess if companies weren't able to sit back and watch the damages grow before launching a claim.

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Reminds me of hockey rules

It's just like the ice hockey rules as explained by some Canadian: Hockey is a real sport, you are allowed to do anything in hockey. Of course you may get a penalty for roughing, tripping, high sticking, spearing, interference, boarding, charging, clipping, slashing, ... (I slowly spaced out).

So there is free speech, but you can get penalized for using it. Thanks for having that clarified.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Reminds me of hockey rules

Free speech does not give you the right to harass, defame or threaten somebody else.

People also have the right to not be harassed, defamed or threatened.

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Re: Reminds me of hockey rules

True but what's often forgotten is that people do not have a right not to be offended. It seems (especially within the media) that people forget that actually we do have the right to say something that may offend someone, somewhere.

Of course, there's a big difference between making an offensive joke and deliberately targeting someone you wish to offend.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Reminds me of hockey rules

Thank God for Guido Fawkes site.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Reminds me of hockey rules

Why? An Irish person who runs a website attacking British politicians from outside British jurisdiction - what is there to thank God for in that? Does he expose what former members of the IRA get up to, or the corruption of Irish politicians?

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Re: Free speech does not give you the right to harass, defame or threaten somebody else.

Speech isn't free when you're so scared of being prosecuted for harassment, defamation, or threatening behavior that you don't engage in it.

Both extremes are bad for society. You Brits seem to have chosen one, while we Yanks are stuck with the other.

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Stop

Very easy rule to follow

Twitter / Facebook / other "social" site are public places, so if you not willing to say it in a public place, then chances are you shouldn't say it on there.

A better rule would to not allow sports people (especially overpaid sleb's) access to these sites.

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Mere conjecture

So when you remove all the "top 10" that contain a lawyer's favourite words and phrases (could, may, risk, might, possibly ... ) and then remove all the descriptions where no legal action has ever been brought, is there anything left?

As any right-thinking person knows, if you really, really feel an unstoppable urge to tweet something, just use a bit of common sense (yes, I realise the conflict between the "if" and the "just") and consider if you'd like someone to tweet that comment about you. Better yet, keep the thought to yourself.

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Huge Error

0. Registering.

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Anonymous Coward

Can someone please explain this sentence?

"Of course, there is nothing stopping a person from self-incriminating themselves by tweets revealing illegal conduct such as the reports of a doctor on sick leave."

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Re: Can someone please explain this sentence?

First bits fairly easy;

Nothing stops you from saying something that could then be used against you. So if you've pulled a sicky at work and then tweet "Having a great day at Alton Towers", there's nothing protecting you from doing so, or indeed from the repercussions. You've said it in a public place so there's not much you can do to prevent an employer from using this as evidence (I suppose you could claim you were delirious ;-) ). This also applies to things that are against the law, so tweeting "I just crapped on a police car" wouldn't be particularly wise.

The last bit, I think probably refers to some specific case (I don't know for sure) but the way I read it is that some doctor was on sick leave but then posted about the fun he was having. Could be wrong though

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Linux

Re: Can someone please explain this sentence?

No, no, no. Your account was cracked. Prove it wasn't.

Linux, because no one cracks Linux.

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Re: Can someone please explain this sentence?

Really? Someone can be just as stupid with Linux and get their machine cracked just as with any other OS. And someone using Twatter is probably stupid enough to do so, theoretically anyway.

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Is there a lawyer in the house?

Q1. If someone tweeted 140 characters of a copyrighted piece of literature would they fall foul of the law?

Q2. If someone said Kevin Pietersen is a wanker would that require the tweeter to prove that KP had indulged in solo pleasures or would KP have to prove he hasn't?

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Re: Is there a lawyer in the house?

Q0: Is there a lawyer in the house?

A0: Possibly. I Are Not One.

A1: re 140 char copyright infringements: I suppose it could - the ECJ judgement seems to indicate that they care more about the appropriation of people's efforts in selecting and arranging expressions than about absolute volumes. From my non-lawyer and (I believe) commonsense point of view, I can't see how substantial protectable effort can be put into selecting and arranging up to 140 characters.

A2: re onanistic cricketers: TFA did mention that idle abuse wasn't actionable. He's a big bloke, though, and owns some heavy bats, so you might want to make sure that your Reg account doesn't get hacked...

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The "substantial part" is more of a worry

Given that a tweet is only 140 characters, you're going to hit the "substantial part" criteria of copyright law PDQ..

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

How many 140-character strings, using dictionary words, are not copyrighted somewhere?

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

"How many 140-character strings, using dictionary words, are not copyrighted somewhere?"

Back-of-the-envelope calculation. Assume that there are 39 possible characters (a-z, 0-9, space, comma and full stop). If 10 billion people typed a different (this is obviously ridiculous) 140-character string every second (also ridiculous) it would take approximately 1 778 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 years to make all of them.

Using dictionary words of course brings the whole thing a lot lower. There are about 5500 four-letter words according to Scrabble, and with a space in between each one, you can only fit 28 of these in a tweet. With the same assumptions, to get through all of these would take approximately 170 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 years. Of course, this is just for four-letter tweets.

I think you're safe.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

Your fundamental error is to omit consideration of grammar, syntax and word frequency. Appearances sometimes to the contrary, tweets do not consist of random arrangements of random words. The actual number of realistic "similar" sentences is many times lower than your worst case.

I can't tell you how much lower, but here are a few considerations: first, many people actually speak in a small range of frequently used phrases rather than individual words. Second, a lot of phrases in constant use are borrowings, conscious or unconscious. And third, those phrases are almost all governed by syntactical rules which reduce the number considerably (taking "I am a plagiarist", you could just about get away with "I a plagiarist am" as an alternative, but "Plagiarist I am a" is contrary to the rules). And fourthly, there is grammar: "I is a plagiarist", "Me is the plagiarist", "Me are a plagiarist" and so on are all blocked by grammatical rules.

Now take a few hundred million English speakers writing stuff down for the last hundred years or so, and that is an awful lot of variant sentences produced by people with, on the whole, more similarities than differences.

I think an awful lot of your zeroes are artifacts of an incorrect base assumption.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Is there a lawyer in the house?

I initially thought this but withdrew my post after considering that limericks and haiku can both fit into 140 characters. I would give an example but I think it is copyrighted.

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

"Your fundamental error is to omit consideration of grammar, syntax and word frequency. "

Well, sure. I was just answering the question. If he wanted me to answer a different question, he should have asked a different question. :-)

"I think an awful lot of your zeroes are artifacts of an incorrect base assumption."

5500^28/10000000000/3600/24/365.25=1.70235973559254851048496876136E87. There were supposed to be 80-90 zeroes. I hope I didn't make too many, but it looks about right.

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

The short version is will 140 carecters breach the copyright of something or other,yes or as close as you can get.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

I assume you are extracting the urine. The "incorrect base assumption" was that every word is likely to appear with equal frequency in random order. The assumption that a set is random when in fact the occurrence of elements and their ordering is rule-governed is one of the standard bugbears of statistics.

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

It's true that the actual number of combinations that make actual sense and are according to the mighty rules of grammar and spelling are a lot less than the total number of possibilities of a 140 character string.

Then again, that number gets upped quite a bit by the rather ballistic approach at spelling and grammar that's introduced by the "phonetic spelling" perpretrated and reinforced by a rather lackluster and inadequate school system in the past decades....

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Headmaster

Re: Is there a lawyer in the house?

When doing teaching degree had to put assignments in using turnit-in - I had a 500 word assignment that was about my disabled son's school experience come back as 75% plagarised - thing is I consulted no books or websites, quoted nothing other his individualised learning plan and school reports (which were handwritten & in my files) . So yes it very possible

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Boffin

Re: Is there a lawyer in the house?

"If someone said Kevin Pietersen is a wanker would that require the tweeter to prove that KP had indulged in solo pleasures or would KP have to prove he hasn't?"

Burden of proof, arguably, would be on him to prove he wasn't in a libel case.

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Re: The "substantial part" is more of a worry

"The "incorrect base assumption" was that every word is likely to appear with equal frequency in random order."

Ah, so not a base assumption then, but a basic assumption. A base assumption would be that I was working in base e, for example, not base 10. Sorry, I read the sentence mathematically, since I was talking about mathematics. It's difficult to switch that part of the brain off.

Of course the number is far lower than what I said. But there are plenty of sentences that have never been displayed before. For example:

"John Major thinks 12ft otters rape each other nightly on his balcony."

This is well under 140 characters, and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am right about this being a new sentence. Because of the creativity involved in this sentence, it is actually probably copyrightable. However,

"Going down the shops today. Might buy some fish."

Is probably a previously spoken phrase, and also is unlikely to be copyrightable. As a complete aside, it is also much more likely to have been a previous tweet.

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Anonymous Coward

Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

deceptive tweets (and other misrepresentations)....

Man, dump twitter and work for fox news, where it's LEGAL to LIE and DECEIVE..

What fun is the web anymore with all these rules? You can't even speak your mind anymore without DHS blowing down your stack.

Of course I am mixing UK law with US law here, but hopefully you get the point, both of our governments suck dick

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Anonymous Coward

Re: both of our governments suck dick

If only! At least then they'd be doing something useful!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

you're saying the governments suck dick? That's defemation I do believe. OFFICERS ARREST HIM!!!

But I agree, the whole libel thing is retarded. If I tweet. "Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" it's libel etc. If I state "Man I hate Jusin Beiber, he seems like such a conceited twat" it'd be different somehow? I assume because it isn't a definitve statement.

Rather than saying "he is" it's "he appears to be"

if you say "In my opinion" or "allegedly" followed by "he's a conceited twat" you're still stating it in a definitive manner. You're just adding that your opinion says he's a twat, of that he's allegedly at twat, rather than saying he seems like one. Which is somehow different.

Honestly this entire post was just an excuse to write "I hate justin beiber, he's a conceited twat" over and over.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

Government activities: It isn't defamation. In fact, it might be discrimination against the gay community or women to suggest that it was in any way defamatory. It is getting quite hard, in fact, to find sexual acts of which to accuse someone that could be considered discriminatory. Perhaps writing of an MP "so and so is so boring that he only engages in sex with his wife in the missionary position with the lights out, and never in Lent" would now be defamatory.

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Re: Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

"Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" [is] libel

No it isn't. That would have the defense of honest opinion.

It would also be adjudged to be "mere abuse" rather than defamatory.

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Re: Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

In theory, a court would find that '"Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat"' would never be interpreted (by a reasonable audience) as a statement of fact. If you included reference to seeing his psych records, then it could be interpreted as such but a reasonable person should always see 'Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" as a statement of opinion, just as posting 'Justin Bieber looks like a 12 year old girl' should be.

If you (as the accused) can show that no reasonable person would construe your statement as one of fact (or, even better, if you could show it was actually true!) then the action would fail. It'd be pretty costly though, AFAIK you can't even apply for legal aid for your defence, which is one of the reasons people piss and moan about our libel laws.

Of course, you probably know this, but I wanted to jump on the bandwagon and write the same sentence a few times too!

IANAL but did a fair bit of studying not that long ago, still before posting "Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" I'd recommend consulting with a solicitor or at least gathering proof that it is in fact true.

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Re: Problem, Reaction, Solution ... Conditioning behavior.

But what would you then do if you wanted to state "Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" as an established fact? According to you, any audience would interpret "Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" as opinion. The first part "Man I hate Justin Beiber" is clearly a statement of dislike, but the person stating is may be in possession of information that "he's such a conceited twat" would be an accurate representation of fact - yet will not be able to establish that in a tweet.

Did anyone actually keep track of how many times we have managed to cram "Man I hate Justin Beiber, he's such a conceited twat" into posts by now? Just out of interest :).

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