Personality: Not just a pretty number

By Angela Adrian and Keith Laker

Mat Honan of Wired Magazine wrote an article for Gadget Lab entitled ‘The Username Is a Relic. Here’s How to Fix It‘ on 19 February 2014. In it he argues that notwithstanding the fact that we are all just a string of numbers on a computer, usernames used in isolation are obsolete and must be used in conjunction with other identifiers.  Can we protect our online personalities by registering them in an Image Rights Registry? Can our Usernames be deemed to be images?

Mat makes an excellent point here. No one can rely on a single item of data to uniquely identify oneself. For our own uniqueness to be meaningful it requires context. We are made up of combinations of what is otherwise non-unique data. I am a short blonde female with blue eyes called Angel born on April 23rd at 4.03 am. Although my twin is also a short blonde female with blue eyes, she is called April and was born the same date but two minutes later. Our non-unique data is nearly identical, but the details and context make us actually unique.

As Mat suggests, “The solution—and the key to Facebook’s success—is surprisingly simple: Identity online should take a cue from the physical world. You are more than your name; your face, your birthday, your location, and the company you keep all help others figure out who you are. ‘Oh, you’re Mat’s friend Joe from New York? That’s right, I remember you.’ We can use all those same cues digitally, as Facebook does. [Your] data has to attach to unique identifiers to live on a server, but only the machines need to see those. They are just like the Social Security numbers we use in meatspace to differentiate people with the same name.” The Guernsey Image Rights Ordinance allows for your ‘meatspace’ identity to be registered and then tied to your online identity.  So, you can register your name, your face, and other distinctive aspects of your personality; and then also, you register your unique Usernames as nicknames or electronic representations of your personnage.

Imagine how McDonald’s feels about all of the Ronald McDonalds (real people named Ronald McDonald) announcing how much they enjoy Del Taco’s breakfasts.  The Ronald McDonald clown may be a registered trademark of McDonalds, but the name is still used to identify a large number of real men. By registering a Username with identifiable data corresponding to it, the wrong Ronald McDonald is less able to steal your identity or undermine the economic benefit you receive from your unique identifier.

[As a side note, I do not think there is direct trademark infringement in the advertisement. I doubt there is a likelihood of confusion regarding the product; but there may be an argument for dilution. The defence of parody does not enter the question as that is a defence in copyright not trademark.]

As Mat so aptly puts it: “Ultimately we’re all just numbers to computers anyway. It’s kind of counter­intuitive, but the best way to be whoever you want to be is to be nothing more than a number to everyone but your friends. That means there can always be more than one Mat Honan—which, trust me, is an awesome idea.” To answer the opening questions: can Mat Honan register his personality?  Undoubtedly so. Can he register his unique online identifier code(s)? Almost certainly so. Can he register his username as an image? Probably not, in isolation. But here is the neat bit:  just as with Facebook and with real life, Mat Honan could probably register his username as one of a combination of elements that collectively represent him uniquely – the law is smart enough to recognise that is what personalities are, and to facilitate this.