When Elon Musk announced that Twitter would go forward under the name X, his company didn’t even hold the @X account.
Until Tuesday evening, that username belonged to Gene Hwang, a San Francisco photographer who held it since 2007. Hwang said he received an email from the company he had suspected might be coming: X had taken the handle and offered little in return.
“I had suspected this could be an outcome and as such I wasn’t too upset,” he said in a phone interview.
The email left Hwang with few options. It said he could have his pick of any unclaimed or inactive usernames, along with some smaller perks.
“Additionally, as a reflection of our appreciation, you will also be provided with a selection of X merch and an exclusive visit to X’s HQ to meet members of our team,” the company said in the email, which Hwang shared with NBC News. The message was simply signed “X.”
The sudden takeover of a longtime user’s handle highlights the branding and intellectual property rights issues that Musk’s company now has to deal with. Musk announced Sunday that he would transform the social media site Twitter into a multiuse platform called X, which would also handle payments.
X is already an extremely popular brand name. More than 100 tech companies have trademarks for X within the specific trademark category that includes online social media networking, according to a search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office conducted by Jessica Flowers, a Georgia based intellectual property attorney.
And the X logo that the platform has been using is not particularly unique. Many Twitter users noticed it bore a striking resemblance to a particular Unicode character. Unicode is the international nonprofit group that standardizes how computer code for letters and other characters should appear on computers.
A spokesperson for Unicode said that it did appear that Musk had adopted one of its characters, named “Mathematical Double-Struck Capital X,” but that he was free to use it as he wanted.
“As with all Unicode characters — letters, symbols, punctuation marks, etc. — everyone is free to use them in whatever way they see fit, including to use them as a trademark or company logo,” the spokesperson said.
Trademarks are regulated in the United States by the Patent and Trademark Office and let holders claim ownership of a word or image that represents a particular brand. Trademark holders can file lawsuits against people or companies to protect their brands — for instance, when the World Wildlife Fund took the World Wrestling Federation to court over the initials WWF.
It is possible to trademark a single letter, but doing so will make it harder for Musk’s company to sue for infringement or to avoid lawsuits from other companies that use X, said Alexandra Roberts, a professor of law and media at Northeastern University.
“There are thousands of single-letter trademark registrations, like Pinterest’s stylized ‘P’ and the Washington Nationals’ ‘W,’” she said.
Musk’s efforts to push X into many other industries could also make it a target for litigation.
“The broader the goods and services with which the company uses the trademark — if, for example, they use it for financial services and retail and entertainment and gaming, as well as a social media platform — the more likely their use could trigger opposition from an owner of another ‘X’ mark,” Roberts said.
Several giant tech companies, including Meta, Microsoft, Google and the internet service Xfinity, own trademarks for the letter X in context of tech or internet services. (Comcast owns Xfinity and NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
Flowers said the trademark descriptions from those companies cite different uses for X than what Musk has described in his vision for the site, meaning there’s a good chance that the Twitter owner will get a trademark for his new brand. A search for Musk’s X on the Patent and Trademark Office database didn’t yield any results.
Receiving a trademark would not prevent other companies from suing X from trademark infringement.
“I’ve looked at all those applications. In a nutshell, you have to identify what you’re going to use the trademark on. Coca-Cola isn’t for computers. It’s for soft drinks. Nobody’s going to actually believe that Comcast and Twitter are related. In my opinion, I think they’ll get it,” Flowers said.
Meta’s trademark for X refers to Mixer, a video game streaming platform that it bought from Microsoft in 2020 that then became Facebook Gaming. Microsoft’s is for video game chats. Xfinity is an internet service and cable provider. Google’s is for a subsidiary company, also called X, that works on “moonshot” technologies to radically change the world.
None of the four companies responded to emails requesting comment.
Hwang said he probably won’t go to Twitter’s headquarters, per the email’s offer, but has something else in mind.
“Maybe I can ask for the bird on top of the sign they are dismantling?” he said.
As of Wednesday, X’s website still read that the Twitter bird logo was “our most recognizable asset. That’s why we’re so protective of it.”