Sep 4, 2014 · 3 minutes

While the social media elite was having a collective freak-out over comments Twitter CFO Anthony Noto made about possibly, maybe, slowly rolling out an algorithmic component to users' feed, there was another story involving Twitter that, at first glance anyway, reeked of a real scandal.

Before Twitter built photo-sharing directly into its service, Twitpic was one of the most popular tools for uploading photos to Twitter. Like Tweetdeck and other third party apps, it filled in the blanks of Twitter's then-primitive service, giving users new ways to use the service as the company grew out of adolescence.

But today Twitpic announced it is shutting down -- and it's claiming Twitter's to blame.

In a blog post, Twitpic founder Noah Everett wrote that Twitter demanded that the company abandon its trademark application or else risk losing access to the service's API -- without which, photos shared via Twitpic would not be visible within Twitter streams.

In the post, Everett defends Twitpic's right to the trademark:

We originally filed for our trademark in 2009 and our first use in commerce dates back to February 2008 when we launched. We encountered several hurdles and difficulties in getting our trademark approved even though our first use in commerce predated other applications, but we worked through each challenge and in fact had just recently finished the last one. During the “published for opposition” phase of the trademark is when Twitter reached out to our counsel and implied we could be denied access to their API if we did not give up our mark.
To hear Everett tell it, although Twitpic's claim was valid, Twitter with its army of lawyers and considerable cash reserves bullied it into dropping the trademark application, knowing there was no way the comparatively small upstart could outlast the $30 billion company in a legal fight. It wouldn't be the first time Twitter put the squeeze on third party developers through the tyranny of its API. Furthermore, considering Twitter's massive emphasis on photos in recent months, the company perhaps owes Twitpic better than this for providing a well-designed, easy-to-use photo-sharing mechanism for years that required little-to-no-effort on the part of Twitter.

I reached out to Twitter, however, and while a spokesperson didn't deny Everett's telling of the events, the company also claims that it was perfectly willing to let Twitpic continue to operate under its name:

We're sad to see Twitpic is shutting down. We encourage developers to build on top of the Twitter service, as Twitpic has done for years, and we made it clear that they could operate using the Twitpic name. Of course, we also have to protect our brand, and that includes trademarks tied to the brand.
So if Twitter didn't care if Twitpic continued to use its name, why take such a rash step to shut down the entire service?

In an email, Everett explained his position.

"Yes it is a matter of principle," he said. "We believe as our blog post said, we have rights to this mark and cannot in good conscious give it up by being forced to do so."

Hard numbers are tough to come by, but anecdotally I see far fewer Twitpic photos shared since Twitter added its own photo-sharing functionality. In 2011, when Twitter was just starting to implement these features, I spent a great deal of time as an summer intern collecting user-generated photos sent to our newspaper through Twitter -- and Twitpic was among, if not the most commonly-used service. Today, however, most photos I see shared on Twitter are through Twitter's own native tool, so it's hard to argue against the fact that the Twitpic has lost relevance over the years.

In any case, it's a wistful day for early users who remember the wilder, more fragmented, and more user-driven days of Twitter, before the company messed everything up and turned itself into a Facebook clone overnight. Oh wait.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]