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. 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 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?

In The News Internet

Backlash From User Generated Websites

All the buzz these days seems to be about websites that let users generate the content (while the site collects most or all of the revenue). From Wiki’s to MySpace, and Digg (and their millions of clones), all the cool kids are letting the users dictate most if not all of the content on the site.

Though lately these stars have been falling from grace. For example the recent Digg controversy has raised questions about if it’s possible to have a system where users can’t game the system.

YouTube’s business plan has been subject to constant question and often doubt. It may also be subject to a new form of viral marketing further eroding trust in user generated content. Perhaps not just the trust of YouTube investors, but for sure some users.

So the question I think of are: Will the web continue to move towards this model of user generated content? Or will we go back towards the web being a more read-only medium with occasional points of interaction (forums, article comments, blogs)? Can a business model be based on someone else providing all the content? Can investors trust a company whose actual content is created by it’s customers (try explaining that as a business model to someone 10-20 years ago)?

Of course this leads to the question: is this “Bubble 2.0”?

First of all, there is more to the “2.0” movement than just user generated content. It’s about usability, and flexibility more than who generates the content. For example the impact AJAX has had on making web applications like Gmail easier to use. And getting rid of the clutter on so many sites, to be replaced with easier to read text. Sure “Web 2.0” is getting over hyped with silly names, frustrating reflective logo’s, and goofy highlighting all over the page, but there is an advantage to all this XHTML, and DOM scripting. More usable and flexible websites.

I personally don’t believe the MySpace or YouTube model will survive on their own, it’s just not practical. They depend 100% on users to generate the content that attracts users. The same attracting is what draws spammers and just regular delinquents who abuse the system for profit, or simply to be a pest aka “Troll”. They may survive as part of something (MySpace is now part of News Corp.), but as a stand alone operation? I’m not to confident. People get tired of things. Video is fancy now, but eventually it will be just another GIF. Advertising will further help us become blind to the content, just like it did to GIF and Flash that came before.

YouTube today, YouGIF tomorrow.

Does that mean “Bubble 2.0” is confirmed? Hardly. There are many useful applications around with a more stable and reliable model, such as Flickr, WordPress, Technorati, Bloglines, JotSpot, LinkedIn and of course Google who seem to have some sort of a balance, by being more service driven than content driven (you go there to do something, rather than see something), or in the cases of Flickr, WordPress, and Technorati, they have done a good job keeping spam and other abusers out of the system, while fostering an open community using things like API’s to further growth. Flickr and WordPress have “Pro” features for paying customers. Technorati doesn’t (that I’m aware of) but uses advertising to cover it’s cost. It’s main problem is spam, and competition from the likes of Google. Though Google doesn’t seem to have figured out how to handle blog searching yet, either just like a regular website, or though a special blog search interface. LinkedIn has a social networking aspect but also bundles in useful things such as job /people finding tools, which lets face it: aren’t a fad.

Who will survive? Those that can correctly manage and balance user generated content. It’s that simple. The days where there is no balance can’t last. While the days of totalitarian websites that ruled the web are gone, the days of anarchy can not last. There is a balance, and likely an profit for the one who can find it, and use it effectively to allow users the freedoms they desire without the problems facing todays websites.