Last Friday, German artist Tobias Leingruber launched a website, FBbureau.com, 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 FBbureau.com 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.”