User Generated Content Ownership

Since the creation of the <form/> elements people have been wondering about the ownership and copyright of content created online. From email and message boards in Web 1.0 to blogs and Twitter in Web 2.0 the same fundamental questions remain.

Lately, Twitter has been the focus. Twitter is actually pretty clear about it’s claims to user generated content:

  1. We claim no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Twitter service. Your profile and materials uploaded remain yours. You can remove your profile at any time by deleting your account. This will also remove any text and images you have stored in the system.
  2. We encourage users to contribute their creations to the public domain or consider progressive licensing terms.

It’s pretty clear that Twitter is taking a hands off approach, but it doesn’t let users decide what they want. I’m personally a fan of Creative Commons so my suggestion would be to let decide in their account settings how they wish to license and choose between CC licenses. That of course makes retweeting complicated to put it nicely (it’s more like a minefield). That’s likely the reason they avoid the licensing issue. Sure you can put some sort of an icon next to the tweet to indicate the licensing, but what if someone retweets it? Or modifies it ever so slightly? Is it a new tweet? How many characters must change for it to be a new one? This is where it gets murky.

Yahoo owned Flickr choose to solve this problem by letting users choose what copyright they want to impose, and include a Creative Commons option. A very graceful solution though admittedly their situation is much simpler than Twitter’s since they don’t have to deal with complexities like retweeting which would make things very complicated.

WordPress.com isn’t as clear in regards to it’s claims (or lack of) to copyright. Though they are far from locking people in considering you can delete stuff at any time and download your entire blog and move it elsewhere. Matt‘s been pretty open about giving users choice including the ability to leave WordPress.com. There is of course room for improvement to clarify their stance on copyright ownership.

Even Google has been criticized for copyright concerns regarding services like Google Docs.

They could adopt the Richard Stallman stance to “intellectual property” (his airquotes), though that would alienate at least as many as it attracts.

While Twitter might be the hot topic today it’s hardly a problem exclusive to Twitter. It’s an issue for virtually any site out there that accepts third party content. It gets more complicated when content can be remixed and redistributed.

The reality is people should know what rights they are giving up by putting content on these or any other services, but people rarely do. Perhaps a great Creative Commons project would be to create the same simplified icon/license system but for websites that allow users to submit content. The licenses would indicate what the impacts of the Terms of Service jargon are in plain English. It’s essentially the inverse of what they do now. Label the service as well as the content.

So what’s the best solution?