who owns your tweets? (@novaspivack)

Thought I’d tackle a relatively short and easy one today – it’s been a long, long week. Anyway, I noticed a tweet from @novaspivack (via a retweet by @mathewi) asking “Legal question: Who owns the copyright to your tweets, and who has the ultimate right to decide who else can access them?”

Under both the US (§201) and Canadian (s. 13(1)) Copyright Acts, the first owner of a work in which copyright subsists is the author of that work. In other words, you write it, you own it. So that’s your starting point. You write a tweet, you own it.

There are also exceptions to the rule that an author owns the work. For example, if you author something in the course of your employment, your employer will be the first owner of the work absent an agreement to the contrary. So, for example, if you tweet as a part of your job, then copyright in your tweets are owned by your employer, not you, unless you’ve struck a deal saying otherwise with your employer. In the US, this is often referred to as a “work made for hire” (sometimes contracted to “work for hire”).

You can also agree, up front, with a contract with someone else, that a work that you author will be owned by them. Subject to the usual legal niceties of creating a legally enforceable contract (and some caveats, which I won’t get into here), that means that what you write will be owned by that other person. So, for example, you can agree under a contract to tweet for someone else and that those tweets will be owned by that other person.

This can also be done after the fact. You can author a work, and then sell it to someone else under a contract. Then they’ll own it. This could be done with tweets. So for example if a publisher wanted to compile your past tweets into a book, you could sell them the copyright in those tweets, and they’d be free to do what they want with them.

Along similar lines, you can also grant licenses to work you create. The granting of a license means that you give someone else some rights that only you would, in the absence of that grant, be entitled to exercise. So, for example, you could grant someone the right to publish a book of your tweets, in paper form only, in North America. Once you grant that right, then they can publish that book without infringing your copyright.

The reason I mention licenses is because there is a specific term in the Twitter terms of service pursuant to which users of Twitter grant Twitter a license. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services.

We may modify or adapt your Content in order to transmit, display or distribute it over computer networks and in various media and/or make changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to any requirements or limitations of any networks, devices, services or media.

“Content” basically means your tweets. So you keep ownership of your tweets. BUT, you grant a license to Twitter to do a whole bunch of stuff with it. These rights constitute, more or less, anything you as the owner could otherwise do. It’s quite broad. Very broad, in fact. Substantively, really the only difference between this and giving up ownership completely is that you can continue to use your tweets in other ways. So for example if you want to put your tweets on Facebook, or your blog, or sell a book of your tweets, you would be free to do so. Then again, so can Twitter, if it wanted to.

All of this of course assumes that the terms of service are enforceable. There are arguments for and against, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post.

So the second part of the question is who has the ultimate right to decide who else can access them. While, as you probably know, Twitter does allow you to restrict who can see your tweets, they do have the right to give access to whoever they choose, and completely disregard your settings. I didn’t see anything in their terms of use that imposed a contractual restriction on them to honour restricted user settings. Then again, I haven’t exactly read it word for word.

I imagine there might be situations where you could be able to terminate the contract, even though the terms of service don’t expressly provide for that, but I imagine it would be challenging to suggest that the license rights granted to past tweets would terminate. Interestingly, the rights granted under the license language above aren’t characterized as “perpetual” (i.e. forever), which they often are in such documents.

It may also be worth mentioning that Twitter can control access to your tweets to the extent it involves Twitter. Just to make this clear, they have this provision in their terms of use:

We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames. Please review the Twitter Rules (which are part of these Terms) to better understand what is prohibited on the Service. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public.

So, for example, they can pull all of your tweets off Twitter, so that no one can see them anymore. However, that doesn’t preclude you from, for example, reposting all your tweets to Facebook or a blog, if you wanted to, and assuming you retained a copy of them.

Of course, lawyers tend to argue about everything and anything, so I’m sure someone out there may be inclined to disagree with something I’ve written above. Which is fine. And of course the usual – not legal advice, no lawyer-client privilege, no obligation or liability. Just in case you live in the US.

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

privacy vs the news (us version)

Interesting case summarized by Loeb and Loeb. A guy bitten by a killer whale sues someone for broadcasting the tape showing the incident without his consent. The guy claims, amongst other things, infringement of rights of privacy. Interestingly, the court held:

…that the plaintiff did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a video that he had previously licensed for broadcast on national television. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that once-public facts could become private again and held that, even if the video were considered private, its broadcast
was protected as a newsworthy event.

What I find particularly interesting is the very last part, which seems to suggest that if it’s newsworthy, that somehow trumps the right to privacy. I can imagine that this would likely not be the case here in Canada. One example of where the courts here have done in directly the opposite direction is with respect to the horrific crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, where a wide ban was imposed on materials related to the murders of two young women in order to protect the victims and their families.

I wonder how such a statement (albeit something that could very well be considered obiter) might be applied in other circumstances involving the victims of accidents or crimes, to the detriment of those victims…

Fair Use and the DMCA

An article in Wired News with the dramatic title of “Lawmakers Tout DMCA Killer” describes the most recent attempt to: (a) water down the protections afforded to content owners by the DMCA; (b) ensure the preservation of fair use rights on the part of users. As is usual, each side has its own rhetoric to describe what is happening, so in fairness I took the liberty of offering to readers of this blog the two alternative descriptions above. The nub:

The Boucher and Doolittle bill (.pdf), called the Fair Use Act of 2007, would free consumers to circumvent digital locks on media under six special circumstances.

Librarians would be allowed to bypass DRM technology to update or preserve their collections. Journalists, researchers and educators could do the same in pursuit of their work. Everyday consumers would get to “transmit work over a home or personal network” so long as movies, music and other personal media didn’t find their way on to the internet for distribution.

And then of course on the other side:

“The suggestion that fair use and technological innovation is endangered is ignoring reality,” said MPAA spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg. “This is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Osterberg pointed to a study the U.S. Copyright Office conducts every three years to determine whether fair use is being adversely affected. “The balance that Congress built into the DMCA is working.” The danger, Osterberg said, is in attempting to “enshrine exemptions” to copyright law.

To suggest that content owners have the right to be paid for their work is, for me, a  no-brainer. That being said, I wonder whether the DMCA and increasingly more complex and invasive DRM schemes will ultimately backfire – sure they protect the content, but they sure as heck are a pain in the ass – just my personal take on it. For example, I’d love to buy digital music, but having experienced the controls that iTunes imposes and suddenly having all my tracks disappear, I just don’t bother with it now. Not to mention the incredible hoops one needs to go through to display, say, Blu-ray on a computer – at least in its original, non-downgraded resolution – why bother with all of that at all?

I wonder whether this is, in a way, history repeating itself in a way. I am old enough to remember the early days of software protection – virtually every high-end game or application used fairly sophisticated techniques (like writing non-standard tracks on floppies in between standard tracks) in attempting to prevent piracy. Granted, these have never gone away altogether, particularly for super high end software that needs dongles and and the like, and of course recently there has been a resurgence in the levels of protection that have been layered on in Windows, but after the initial, almost universal lockdown of software long ago, there came a period where it seemed many (if not most) software developers just stopped using such measures.  At least that’s what seemed to happen. I’m not quite sure why, but I wonder if this same pattern will repeat with content rather than software. I suspect not. But hey, you never know.

In the meantime, off I go, reluctantly, in the cold, cold winter, to the nearest record shop to buy music the old fashioned way…

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.