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Facebook Bullies Artist Into Shuttering Satire Of FB Privacy Policy

Tobias Leingruber put up a website offering Facebook ID cards—and in no time flat, was shut down by Facebook’s lawyers.

Facebook’s trademark cops have shuttered an online art project critiquing the social media giant’s peepshow privacy policy.

Last Friday, German artist Tobias Leingruber launched a website,, on which he proposed issuing unofficial Facebook ID cards, based on users’ profiles, that could one day replace driver’s licenses and passports. It was obvious satire—a way to comment on the astronomical amount of personal data that wafts around on Facebook.

Then three days ago, Facebook sent Leingruber a cease-and-desist letter, citing trademark violation. Leingruber complied and took the site down, after what he described as "a friendly conversation" with one of the company’s lawyers.

"I’m aware that this art project (which I’m also fully paying out of my own pocket) is definitely protected by freedom of art and freedom of speech," Leingruber tells Co.Design in an email. "I’m also not selling unlicensed Facebook mugs or something. Still, my art work is conceptual, and I’d rather work on new ideas instead of talking to lawyers. I think the idea and my thoughts have been planted, and so I came to decide that I’m actually fine with taking the website offline."

Facebook spokeswoman Johanna Peace declined to comment.

Leingruber thought he could circumvent accusations of trademark infringement by using "FB" on the site instead of "Facebook." "I was very careful to avoid using their trademarks right from the beginning," he says. "There was a Facebook logo on the picture that visualized the concept of the ID card though. The main problem was, I didn’t know that Facebook was even going after usage of the letters ‘FB’ as well now. I had those in the domain name and that’s why I decided to avoid too much law talk and just remove it."

Though he’s quick to point out that another artist, Moritz Tolxdorff, developed a similar service where people can create their own Google+ ID cards, and Google hasn’t siced its lawyers on him. (Not yet, anyway.)

So is Facebook just being a bully? More importantly, who has the law on their side?

Elena Paul, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a pro bono legal service for artists, says that it depends. The matter is complicated by the fact that Leingruber lives in Germany, which has different (and more sensitive) privacy laws compared with the United States. It’s unclear what laws would apply, she says.

But if you’re going by U.S. law, Leingruber might have a case. "If it is clearly an art project, there is some case law under American law that would possibly be in his favor," Paul says. One problem: Few artists would even bother putting up a legal fight, especially facing a monolith like Facebook. "The way the system is set up, there are gray areas," she says. "Most artists don’t have the stomach or the ability to go to the mat."

Leingruber plans to continue his art project in a different way. His original vision for included taking to the streets to hand out ID cards—each a sort of mini rendition of your Facebook page, complete with your profile pic, name, username, gender, location, date you joined Facebook, and a QR code that links to your Facebook page. Distribution dates were set for March 3 in Berlin and March 16 in Amsterdam. As Leingruber tells it, that’ll proceed as planned. "We are figuring out a way to not use ‘Facebook’ or ‘Face’ or ‘Book’ or ‘FB’ or ‘F’ on the ID cards that we give out in public," he says. "I just hope Facebook Inc. doesn’t trademark the entire alphabet."

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    To Jake Wells: I do understand the statement about protecting the brand, but if the Leingruber's site was as obviously satire as the column suggest (haven't personally seen it) I think it is fairly overkill to immediatly treathen legal action, especially since no monetary gain was involved. And on the nature of art and especially satire when ever have people doing satire asked permission for it? How do you partner with someone with intent to basicly ridicule the counterpart?

    All through history visible figures, institutions and corporations have been subject to satire and I don't see how FB should some how be above that. Only thing this ridicilously aggresive "brand protection" leeds is to certain Streisand-effect and bad will. I for one propably would have never known about the whole project unless this cencoring hadn't taken place.

  • Oneillkza

    @ LEAH: No, he was not selling it. See the quote about how he funded it entirely out of his own pocket. 

    But, even if he was, fair use laws in the United States do allow for making profit by selling satire. If they didn't, MAD Magazine (just as an example) would have gone out of business 40 years ago.I also think you're confused between copyright and trademark law. Copyrights only protect specific (and substantial) creative works, such as a photograph, passage of text or computer program. Their intent is to provide the creator with a monopoly on selling their work for a period of time so as to make money from their creation. Logos and business names are protected by trademark law. The intent of trademark law is to allow for brand identification, and to prevent others from profiting off a different company's good name.And while businesses are perfectly entitled to protect their brand identity from others making a quick buck off their good name, they are not entitled to use trademark law to silence criticism. This is an important distinction -- a business putting money into its brand does not make it immune to satire. If it did, we would never be able to publicly criticise businesses, with potentially dire consequences for consumer choice.Sadly, it is all too common for businesses to do exactly that -- abuse copyright and trademark laws to restrict free speech in order to prevent bad publicity. There are plenty of examples here: 

  • ken nohe

     Very good comment, I agree. But wait until politicians discover the trick!

  • mtopolov

    Just let him create same with some servers in China. Anyway, facebook is not available there and no doubt, trademarks in china is probably not a problem.

  • Mario Martin Brisson

    Fantastic, soon to be historical design argument. This is
    going up on my college's industrial design forum to stimulate young minds. ; )

  • Leah

    Was he SELLING these cards? Then, yes. It is total copyright infringement.

    In the ad business, this kind of project would be called "borrowed interest" – purposefully piggybacking on another organization's ideas for profit.

    And copyrights don't just cover a logo or a name, they protect an association to one's brand. These cards are obviously linked to facebook's brand and if the artist  is offering them to everyone, it stands to reason that some consumers would believe that they've got a legitimate facebook product.

    Why do people think this is okay? Businesses that have invested in their brand identities, trying to maintain a level of uniqueness in an ever-homogenizing world, deserve to FIGHT THOSE WHO COPY.

  • mc

    I'm sure the only reason MySpace still exists is that they receive millions in royalties from Facebook, and they don't pass all of them along to SixDegrees.

    The publishing company that originally came up with face books is no doubt making a huge amount from the popular software version too.

  • Guest

    Read the article and brush up on your satire/fair-use laws -- 

    “I’m aware that this art project (which I’m also fully paying out of my own pocket) is definitely protected by freedom of art and freedom of speech,”

  • Mark MacKay

    Censorship from FB? What next - sharing our personal information? Another reason to consider dumping my current FB site, which I use to post work related stuff only. I dumped my personal site a few years ago.

    I think FB's action against an artist and their effort to silence social satire should give birth to a new artistic movement - FU FB. Tweak the giants. Let 100 flowers - and/or FU FB websites/projects - bloom. 

  • macmac

    Tobias was making a statement about FB and it's practices and behaviour.

    How can a perfectly legitimate and artistic (non-profit) statement be shut-down by a company professing to being for it's users?
    - Because it's a business that sells our personal information to the highest bidder and doesn't like being challenged. (Which is also a definition of a bully!)

    With a sale leads of 1/6 of the population, it's determining our lifestyles right now, yet without having the decency to ask - it steals under the guise of being free!!

    Please don't tell me anyone thinks that timeline was invented for FB's users?

  • Oneillkza

    To JAKE WELLS: So any time somebody wants to make a withering satire of a corporation, they should ask permission first for it to be "legit"?
    The brand protection extended by trademark law goes only as far as to prevent others from trading under somebody else's brand name. It is not intended to protect the brand from criticism or ridicule.

    I've been noticing a depressing trend lately: a corporation will suppress perfectly legitimate (ie non-libellous) criticisms purely on the grounds that they damage their reputation. Then people will jump to their defence, arguing that corporate reputation trumps free speech.

    Apparently corporations are not just people, but somehow superior to people in terms of their rights regarding speech.

  • stefan

    one more reason - like we needed more - to boycott that utterly useless site. i NEVER signed up and never will,  it is the worst waste of bandwidth (along with stupid twitter) that the world has witnessed since  myspace a few years ago.
    i hope they will soon go down the same path to 'has been' land.

  • Drew Rose

    Great article Suzanne!

    I think Leingruber played this well. -- "I think the idea and my thoughts have been planted, and so I came to
    decide that I’m actually fine with taking the website offline.”

    As an artist, he's trying to get a message out; he's not trying to bicker with Facebook's legal team.

    And I think his message is out...Well done, Tobias.

  • Pickle Monger

    As far as US caselaw is concerned this should be a clear example of fair use. Problem is, fair use is an affirmative defense that has to be made at trial and might not be enough to have the case dismissed outright unless the presiding judge decides that it is in fact a clear case of fair use and decides that the court's time is best not spent on it. Such occurences are extremely rare though they do happen. If memory serves me right, that happened with one of the Righthaven cases.

  • David Petherick

    Just out of curiosity, I checked URL availability for facebook spelled backwards - koobecaf. And there are still a quite a few out there! 

    I think it's no surprise that Facebook's started to 'get legal' with what is certainly fair use, as it's heading for an IPO. It's not the trademark that worries them, it's people taking the piss out of them, especially when it raises the thorny issue of privacy. Their business model is completely busted without the ability to let advertisers sell to us by using essentially private information. So like any major corporation, they guard their livelihood using 'all legitimate means'. 

    Knowing that you are up against a bigger, more aggressive, richer and meaner opponent usually results in capitulation after such a 'friendly chat' - because the next step is usually very unpleasant.

  • macmac

    Well that's getting sued and me, jake and anyone else who comments on this thread being violated for having the audacity to believe in our freedoms!!!

    I wish i had billions of dollars to buly the world into my way of thinking...actually i dont and i cant wait till Suckerberg falls on his own sword!?

    Probably gonna be a long wait....really long me something to do whilst i digress, unless FB has licensed waiting and digressing too!!!


  • Micheil Smith

    They'll probably also have a trademark on the color blue that's being used as well.