Monday, June 19, 2006

Who Owns My Words?

Who owns the words you put on your blog? The answer may surprise you. In internet parlance, the abbreviation IANAL means “I am not a lawyer” and usually prefaces the phrase “, but…” as the beginning of a pseudo-legal diatribe. Well, I never could grow the dorsal fin, so IANAL, but…

There is a subtle land grab going on in the intellectual property cyberspace wild west. Read over this excerpt from the Myspace Terms of Service:

By displaying or publishing ("posting") any Content, messages, text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, profiles, works of authorship, or any other materials (collectively, "Content") on or through the Services, you hereby grant to, a non-exclusive, fully-paid and royalty-free, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense through unlimited levels of sublicensees) to use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, and distribute such Content on and through the Services. This license will terminate at the time you remove such Content from the Services.

I take this to mean that anything you put on MySpace can be used by them for anything they want for free. The last sentence is about the only protection that keeps News Corp (the owners of MySpace and Fox Television) from putting out a “Best Of” album featuring all those indie-bands that are using the viral social network to bypass that atherosclerotic albatross that commercial radio has become. It also lets you use your own stuff anywhere else because the click-license is non-exclusive.

Compare this to the phrases used by on their blogs:

6. For any content that you post, you hereby grant to the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, exclusive and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part, world-wide and to incorporate it in other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

I don’t know whether the WaPo lawyers are dumber or smarter than the ones for MySpace but the key difference is that the Post estracts an exclusive license. Once you post a comment on the Achenblog, they own it forever and if you want to produce a book with your collected wit and wisdom, you need to cut in Katherine Graham’s estate or at the very least negotiate a sub-license from Tom Jim Brady or Cifford Sloan.

My Fathers Day post was based on a Boodle comment I made awhile back that I thought would make a nice expanded post of my own. The Post can claim to own my words, but they can’t take my memories away. I defy them to come after me.

Under these poorly written Discussion Guidelines (that have been re-written at least once to correct an obvious contradiction), you cannot “promote commercial entities.” I guess it’s a violation if I say I had a good meal at a particular restaurant or I really liked George Will’s latest Newseek column. Joel Achenbach had better be careful about further plugs for Chateau Nehicola.


Karen said...

Hmm...that's interesting to know since it's mostly kids on MySpace...including my own! I'll have to talk to her about this. Yikes! Technology!

Michele sent me today...

Mooselet said...

An all-or-nothing situation rarely works in life, never mind something so murky as with someone's thoughts. Claiming exclusive ownership over such things seems to me to be a legal form of plagarism. Sure somebody else wrote it, but since we own it we can claim it for ourselves. Sounds so wrong.

Anonymous said...

*rueful head - shaking*

The whole intellectual property thing is a thorny issue, true. On the one hand, people should be able to make a living on their works. On the other hand, it is completely unacceptable to enact legally provisions that stifle innovation because (heaven forfend) someone might do it better than you. And this sort of thing is just ridiculous. If they want to own your writings exclusively, they should compensate you.

There's got to be some better way.

Anonymous said...

Well...the lawyers need something to do; let them noodle this stuff out.

What cracks me up is the people who think that they have to put copyright notices on their personal webpages and, instead of installing a simple copyright, they crib language off of another page (and you can tell it's cribbed because it's the only paragraph without misspellings), without necessarily understanding the implications of what they've posted. But they figure a long scary paragraph at the bottom of their website is like an electronic suit of armor.

paula said...

Who, truly, owns anything in this world?????


trusty getto said...

Well, another interpretation is that there is so much content being posted, that instead of wanting to own it, these entitites realize they can't control it. I'm betting they don't want to be liable for the ways it might conceivably be used or misused. If you give them a broad license, they don't have to worry about it, b/c you've agreed to let them use it any way they want. See what I mean? It's partially a shortcut to not have to monitor it, I would guess.

Anonymous said...

yellojkt, I believe the explanation for those weirdly lawyerly Post rules is that the Post doesn't want to be sued by a commenter who argues that the Post, by continuing to keep the comments on the website for weeks or months or potentially years, owes compensation for the comments, and not just for one time but for every day the comment remained published. In other words the Post is playing legal defense. I am sure that it would never stop anyone from publishing a comment or a collection of the person's comments, or whatever. I realize this probably is gibberish.

yellojkt said...


I appreciate the comment, but the license itself was not the issue I was most concerned about. I understand that the WaPo would want a license for liability reasons. My concern is that they are asking for an exclusive license.

If I understand publishing correctly, when you sell an article to a magazine, you sell them the right for first publication, meaning you can't let it get printed somewhere else before they run it. After they run it, you can then reprint it in your own essay collection later. Isaac Asimov published dozens of books that were essentially compilations of his essays.

With WaPo demanding an exclusive right, that means I can't reprint what I put in the Boodle anywhere else ever, including my own blog, my memoirs, or the movie version of a thriller where I am a blogger that stumbles upon a conspiracy that affects world order.

I am not a lawyer or a journalist, but if the Post isn't paying me for the comment, they shouldn't have the right to tell me I can't use it again.

Anonymous said...

or at the very least negotiate a sub-license from Tom Brady or Cifford Sloan.
It appears you conflated Jim Brady and Tom Kennedy into the star quarterback turned model turned existentialist philosopher.

yellojkt said...

I knew I was going to get that wrong. I don't even follow football and the name stuck in my head.