There is no question, YOU OWN your content on social networks!

12 05 2011

Every day there is always someone freaking out about one social network or other who apparently take ownership of your content. This inevitably starts a panic among their friends list and mass deletion of content they don’t want big corporations to own.

For those who can’t be arsed reading further here’s the deal in a nutshell:

  • You will always own your content on social networks, no-one can take that away from you.
  • You allow the social networks license or the right to use your content as they see fit in return for using their site.
  • The can dictate to you how their site can and can’t be used if they feel like it.
  • If you don’t like it, don’t sign up!

I often wonder why people don’t read the terms and conditions when signing up to these things if they are so concerned about ownership of their content. If intellectual property ownership, that is your created content, is such an important feature of social network membership, surely reading the terms and conditions in advance of joining, to ensure you have full ownership and don’t allocate it to anyone else, is essential?

That said, I’ve yet to find a social network that claims to have ownership of your intellectual property. The most common terminology is along the lines of ‘The user grants the service a worldwide non-exclusive royalty-free license .’ This is the trade-off with the social network for allowing you to use their service;  you get to use their service and in return they get to use any of your content that may be beneficial to them or their business.

Of course there has been well publicised anger at how social networks purport to use such licences with the most famous being the Facebook scandal of 2009. A change to the T&C’s in early 2009 implied, even when you deleted your content or account, the agreed license with Facebook meant they could still use your content infinitely. The outcry at this underhand and unannounced change led to tens of thousands of Facebook users setting up groups to complain at the lack of control they had over their content and as they believed, their privacy.

Since then Facebook has made some controversial decisions regarding content and privacy but with more user input, it appears at first instance, Facebook are taking these user concerns more seriously. Whether it goes far enough with Privacy and 3rd Party applications is subject to debate for another time.

Facebook provide a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities which is, in effect, their terms and conditions of use and the relevant part regarding content is right at the top of the page,

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

  1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

(emphasis my own!)

The benefit of Facebook linking your privacy settings to their use of your content, should mean that if you have set your privacy to friends only or even filters within your friends, then Facebook can only use this content in respect of your settings. Nothing posted as friends only will be seen by anyone other than those on your friends list.

Other social networks such as  Tumblr also include content ownership information in their ToS;

Subscriber shall own all Subscriber Content that Subscriber contributes to the Site, but hereby grants and agrees to grant Tumblr a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, transferable right and license (with the right to sublicense), to use, copy, cache, publish, display, distribute, modify, create derivative works and store such Subscriber Content and to allow others to do so (?Content License?) in order to provide the Services”

(emphasis is my own!)

And Twitter:

You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display 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).”

I have discussed previously Twitter, Privacy and Copyright issues on this blog.

One of the most confusing and restricting Terms of Service I’ve seen to date are for LinkedIn, the business based social network. These terms are written in legalese which to uninterested parties tends to cause shut down and even dictates how you present yourself both in terms of real name (no pseudonames allowed) and in your avatar (headshots only). Their list of 5 Do’s and considerably longer 29 Don’ts does make me wonder why anyone bothers with it at all.

Interestingly, it seems users of LinkedIn are increasingly concerned about their User Agreement policy, in particular giving LinkedIn the right to assign or commercialise your ideas or concepts…

You own the information you provide LinkedIn under this Agreement, and may request its deletion at any time, unless you have shared information or content with others and they have not deleted it, or it was copied or stored by other users. Additionally, you grant LinkedIn a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable, sublicenseable, fully paid up and royalty-free right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, process, analyze, use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered, any information you provide, directly or indirectly to LinkedIn, including but not limited to any user generated content, ideas, concepts, techniques or data to the services, you submit to LinkedIn, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or to any third parties. Any information you submit to us is at your own risk of loss as noted in Sections 2 and 3 of this Agreement.

(emphasis my own!)

For a so-called business site where people discuss business ideas and concepts allowing this could be potentially lethal. If you are unsure what assignable rights are check out this wikipedia page (mostly US law but concepts are the same) as it’s just too big and complex to discuss here. It doesn’t comment on Moral Rights to attribution but I’m working on the assumption they wouldn’t stretch as far as to attribute works to their original owner, especially when they claim the right to prepare “derivative” works or to “improve” works.

In fact the more I read their terms and consider the implications, the more I feel I could write an entire dissertation on them alone! Regardless, I never have and never will have an account with LinkedIn, it makes Facebook look like pussycats.

And the reason I wrote this whole blog post was after reading a tweet of someone claiming that Twitpic now owned all your content. Twitpic for those who don’t use it, is a photo sharing service closely tied to twitter. There have been some questions raised over the legitimacy of the Twitpic  T0S and there was enough panic over changes to the ToS for Twitpic to issue a formal statment on their blog.

Even looking at a mirrored cache of the ammended ToS on 4th May, at no point does it say it has ownership of your content. The problem appears to be from paragraph 2 in the copyright section where it states:

You may not grant permission to photographic agencies, photographic libraries, media organizations, news organizations, entertainment organizations, media libraries, or media agencies to retrieve from Twitpic for distribution, license, or any other use, content you have uploaded to Twitpic.

(emphasis their own)

To me this merely suggests you don’t allow access to these agencies through the Twitpic website. It doesn’t say you cannot distribute by any other means, e.g. email, snailmail, smoke signals. After all you retain the copyright and you only license the use of your content, not pass on ownership. In the same manner, Twitpic have licensed you use of their service and are putting limits on what you can do with it. You cannot give others permission to take content from the site. It’s similar to LastFM or Myspace playing your bands music through their site but not allowing anyone to do anything other than listen to your tune on the site (and yes I’m aware you can set download options, it’s merely a simplistic analogy).

That said, it was particularly badly worded and I can understand where the confusion arises. It does make me wonder why these sites do not consider more widely their amendments and publication of controversial amendments, which more often than not, are discovered rather than publicised.

And why do they not make the language clearer? Not everyone has the time, inclination or intelligence required to submerge themselves in the legal jargon often provided by social networking sites in their Terms of service.

When signing up to and using a site, people want to know that

a)Their privacy is taken into consideration,

b) they have full control over who has access to their information and content,

c) they get to retain ownership of their content (intellectual property) without question or threat of underhanded change of ownership and

d) if licensing right to use their content by the site, how and by whom it will be used.

Obviously there are more issues and each user will have their own questions and concerns but these main points need to be addressed quickly, concisely and without any room for confusion. Social Networking sites are relying on users not taking notice of the terms and conditions to be able to amend them or make them as restrictive as they wish. This is not good business practice.

Anyway I’ve rambled on for ages now and I’m not sure I’ve actually said anything of worth so I shall finish with this simple summative sentence:

At no point do these social networks claim they own what you create, merely that they can use it as they see fit and often only for the duration of your membership of their service.

DISCLAIMER: I wrote this as the baby napped and now she’s awake I don’t have time to read over it so you get it as is. I also don’t have a clue what I’m talking about :-p

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