Instagram's trademark crackdown a warning shot for developers

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

There are few questions that seem more relevant in an age of digital marketing than, "What's in a name?" For a developer, or more specifically for an app, the name can be almost everything. The name represents the brand, and the brand represents all the attributes that should hopefully make consumers want to download (or even better, pay for) the actual app. No wonder the most successful brands in the world are starting to get nervous about the developers in their midst.

A story started making the rounds last week about a letter reportedly sent from Instagram (now owned by Facebook) to the developers who create anything connected to the popular photo-sharing service. According to TechCrunch, which posted the letter, Instagram said it was really just trying to protect its trademark: "It has always been against our guidelines to use a name that sounds or looks like 'Instagram' or copies the look and feel of our application. Similarly, as we have clarified in the new guidelines, use of 'INSTA' and 'GRAM' for an application that works with Instagram is harmful to the Instagram brand."

That being said, this goes well beyond mere trademark policy. It is important that Instagram not have developers in its ecosystem who are in any way perceived as spin-offs of some kind. This is part of the delicate balancing act in moving from merely a popular service into a de facto platform on which other companies build their own fortunes. You want the developers there, and you don't want them to turn into competitors, but you also need them to look distinct enough that they can succeed or fail on their own merits. You won't see Facebook authoring a lot of apps with names like Facester, Facetome, Facejournal or the like. Likewise, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) will probably reject developers who hope to name their product Bushel (though I could almost imagine Apple one day making an app of its own with that name).

It's also not difficult to understand why developers might want to create InstaEdits, FriendGrams, InstaAlbums and so on. Discoverability continues to be such a challenge that riding on the cachet of something immediately familiar to customers (InstaRecognition?) is probably all too tempting. Plus, as companies like Facebook and Instagram become actual platforms, it will be natural for developers to specifically create certain apps with them in mind.

The only thing developers can do--and the only thing Instagram and the like would want them to do--is invest in creating something so compelling, so original or so useful that it deserves a name entirely its own. Even if it feels tailor-made for a specific platform, there should be an element of design and creativity that suggests something the platform provider would never have thought of, but should have. A test of a great name, of course, is whether it survives an acquisition--it says something that Facebook didn't simply rename Instagram as Facebook Photos.

I'm not suggesting this is an easy challenge, but it's the kind of challenge the best developers always overcome. You shouldn't have to sound like the word "Instagram" for the pundits to predict you'll be the next Instagram. -Shane