A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I would mind his reposting something I had written. He had posted a link to his blog on a social networking site, at which location a dialogue had opened up. He then wanted to include a portion of our conversation as follow-up on his blog. I was happy to oblige, but the prospect did get me thinking about copyrights. My primary concern was that I be able to reproduce my own ideas in my own work, if such an eventuality should come to pass, at some time in the future. The social networking site was a semi-public forum, so I assumed my rights to my created content were minimal, but I didn’t really know for sure. The subject seemed worthy of further investigation.
What are your rights to reproduction once you have expressed a thought on the internet? Does where you write an idea have any impact on your rights to the thought you have expressed? How can you protect yourself and your right to re-use your own ideas in places other than where you first posted them, even if that first post was on someone else’s forum?
I will start by pointing out that I am not a copyright attorney, have no legal qualifications in this regard, and if you have any serious legal claim regarding a copyright infringement you should consult a certified professional attorney who has passed the bar exam in your state.
That said, it would seem to me that writing is writing, no matter where you do it. So your legal copy rights should remain the same on the internet as they would anywhere else in America. And since just about everything you post on the internet is time stamped, (I’m making allowance for the possibility that there is somewhere out there where it isn’t time stamped, even though I don’t know where that might be), the question of who wrote something first should be even easier to determine on the internet. The assumption here is that the person who can prove that they wrote something first, would logically be expected to be the first person to have written it, and therefore to holder of the legal right to that writing. The time stamp is essentially the digital equivalent of the classic concept of “The poor man’s copyright”, and practice of mailing your own work to yourself in order to establish copyright without having to pay for copyright protection. The so-called “Poor man’s copyright” is not an official form of protection, and most likely offers a cursory form of protection at best. The same could be assumed to be true of the digital time stamp. But at least something is better than nothing.
So what is the actual copyright law? The United States Copyright Office identifies that a “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” The website of the US Copyright Office goes into fuller detail on the law in the FAQ page, one of the key points being “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”
By this standard, any idea that you as an individual have written on a forum, which does not state otherwise in the legal agreement which you may have accepted in order to begin posting, and which can be identified as having been written by you and which can be fixed in time, belongs to you. (A lot of the big sites require that you check-off a legal agreement before you post anything. Copyrights establishing the website’s ability to edit or use your copy may very well constitute a portion of what you are agreeing to when you sign up. If you are concerned about your right to reproduce content, you may want to read the legalese more carefully.) It is worth mentioning however, that if you thought something but did not write it, or wrote something which was later expressed differently by someone else, you would not seem to be protected by copyright law. To be clear, the copyright law states that “Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be.” So A patent remains an alternative in order to protect a discovery, but an idea is up for grabs once it has been revealed in public.
If you are responding to some big public forum which is owned and operated by a private company, you may have to sign away your rights before you post anything. But then what about social networking? If your friend posts a thought on his social networking page, or opens up a forum within a social network, and then you post some deep insightful response which subsequently gets everyone talking, what are your rights then?
Well, we’ve already established that ideas are not copyrightable, and that only the tangible expression of ideas can be copyrighted. And we can assume that most of your friends are not posting legalese copyright disclaimers on their social networking posts or forums. It would seem logical to me that once you have posted and item on someone else’s page you have granted them the right to reproduce or share your ideas. Certainly, given the proclivity of posts to go viral, you should be considering whether you are willing to stand by what you have said before you make a post. Regardless of your rights, the practical reality is that once it’s on the internet it’s hard to pull back.
What do the social networking sites have to say about copyright? A little blue link titled “Terms” led me to another link to the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” on one popular social networking website, where interesting insights into copy rights and protections were revealed. The website makes a statement guaranteeing your rights to your own content. It does claim the right to reproduce that content in conjunction with the “IP License”. (Some limited experience with programming leads me to believe that this is necessary in order to program the website.) The license ends if you delete your account or when you choose to delete the specific content. The website also lays out rules for respecting the rights of other social networkers, and threatens action for non-compliance. In other words, if you make a habit of ripping people off or in any other way abusing the rights of your fellow social networkers, the website is stating that it may take legal action against you.
I am a little leery of posting actual verbatim legalese from a social networking site on my blog. I can only assume that the potential for conflict exists. This was probably not the sexiest topic to cover on my return to blogging, but it seems like the right place to start anyway. How better to establish that I reserve the right to all content that I produce for this blog, and also that I reserve the right to delete any content which I deem inappropriate. I know this doesn’t constitute an official copyright agreement, but there I’ve said it. This is my blog, and I decide what stays or goes. I said it here. I said it now. Check the time stamp.