A legal battle over ownership of WallStreetBets, known for igniting the memestock craze of 2021, presented the court with a question at the intersection of social media and intellectual property rights: Is the trademark owned by the platform or the individual who created the online community that popularized the mark?
The answer to that question appears to be the platform, at least in the case of r/WallStreetBets founder Jaime Rogozinski, who sued Reddit for infringing on his trademarks. U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney, in an order issued Jan. 12, backed Reddit’s ownership of intellectual property representing the online forum since the company was the first to use the marks.
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As personal brands are increasingly monetized on social media, the ruling could warn creators that they may not own or even have a say in management of intellectual property they may have developed. This could especially be true when it concerns a platform like Reddit, which not only hosts third-party content but creates niche communities — each with their own name and brand — in service of categorizing that content.
In recent years, retail investors have flocked to the subreddit, which has over 13 million subscribers. It was featured in Dumb Money, starring Paul Dano, for its role in boosting the short squeeze on GameStop and AMC Networks against Wall Street titans.
Rogozinski, who founded the subreddit in 2012, sued Reddit last year after he was ousted as moderator for trying to monetize the community by promoting his book and an esports competition, which is against the platform’s terms of service. He alleged the actual reason he was terminated is because of a trademark application he filed in 2020 to register WallStreetBets, which Reddit allegedly opposed as part of an effort to systematically assert ownership of popular subreddits to support its IPO. The suit sought a court order that he’s the owner of the WallStreetBets and WSB marks.
Dismissing the suit, Chesney concluded that Reddit established use and ownership of the WallStreetBets mark in 2012 when Rogozinksi created the subreddit.
Under intellectual property laws, ownership of a mark isn’t met through registration with regulators but rather first utilizing it in the sale of goods and services.
Even if his launch of the subreddit constituted Reddit’s use of the mark and not his, Rogozinksi had argued his infringement claim should advance because he is the “the senior user” of the WSB mark in the “cryptocurrency-related goods and services” market. The court rejected the argument in the absence of allegations that Reddit’s avatars display the mark or that the platform “used it in any other manner.”
Additionally, Chesney dismissed Rogozinksi’s various claims alleging violations of state law — including right of publicity, breach of contract and unfair competition — because they’re barred by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from liability for third-party content.
And as for arguments from Rogozinksi that he “would have never spent more than eight years building an audience” on the platform had he known it “could be seized by Reddit at any moment,” the judge responded, “An assertion one spent time one otherwise would not have spent does not suffice.”
Reddit and Rogozinksi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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