Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who owns what you post?

Originally published in The Athens NEWS:

Facebook caved in to users last week under a mountain of protests because of a subtle change to the popular social networking site’s “terms of use.” Many of the site’s 175 million users, as well as a handful of online privacy watchdog groups, were outraged by a proposal that would have given Facebook the rights to content generated by its users, even after they deleted their accounts.

Last week, Facebook retracted the changes and reverted back to its old policy. But that old policy still grants the Web site a license to copy, publicly display, reformat and distribute user content for any purpose the site wishes.

Bernhard Debatin, an associate professor of journalism at Ohio University, explained what happened. “Facebook tried to change it so they could own your content,” he said. The difference between the current policy and the one Facebook tried to implement, he added, “ultimately, is only a semantic difference.”

The real issue, the professor stated, is that users still license out content to Facebook when they sign up for an account. “People out there thought they had won this huge battle, not realizing that the licensing issue is still there,” said Debatin, who has researched content and privacy concerns associated with Facebook.

After the controversy last week, Facebook stated that it doesn’t intend to own rights to any user information, but that it needs at least some sort of licensing agreement to circulate content on its network. Facebook couldn’t be reached for comment.

Still, a major concern, according to Debatin, is that users don’t know how their content is being used because the language behind the license is so broad. Facebook’s current “terms of use” states that its license gives the company the right to use user-generated content for “any purpose, be it commercial, advertising or any sort of marketing or promotion.”

Facebook also says it can keep archived copies it has made of user content even after a user has deleted his or her profile.

“You still don’t know if, and how much, of the content you produce is being used by Facebook,” Debatin said. Facebook regularly takes user “snapshots,” which it can then archive and keep after a user deactivates his or her account. “I would assume they make [snapshots] pretty frequently,” he noted. Facebook would no longer have rights to the original content but would still own all the archived copies of it, he said.

Debatin noted that the licensing issues seen on Facebook are echoed throughout the social networking spectrum – sites such as MySpace, photo-hosting services such as Flickr and Zooomr, and even many blogging services.

For photographers, this poses an interesting question. Matt Slaby, a freelance photojournalist based in Denver with a degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, commented on the ever-growing problem of trying to protect intellectual property in the digital age.

Slaby said that social-networking sites such as Facebook are increasingly becoming cheap, effective marketing tools for semi-professional young writers, photographers and artists. “As a photographer, I look at things like Facebook with a certain sense of balance; it’s a great marketing tool and an interesting and nontraditional way to reach buyers and syndicate content,” he said.

Yet content, whether it be writing or photography can now be copied and transferred easily without the user’s consent. “The problem with intellectual property law, in its current state,” Slaby said, “is that it uses language that was germane to an age where content had a unique original – a typed manuscript, an original negative, a painted canvas.”

He said the problem with Facebook’s changes was that they went too far. “It’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario where Facebook would begin selling your content for a profit without compensating you, the producer of the material,” he said.
“The World Wide Web is a multi-edged sword,” agreed Stan Alost, assistant director of the Ohio University School of Visual Communication. Social networking, photo-hosting, and blogging sites are examples of the proliferation of communication in the digital age, he said.

“With that mass audience,” and massive amount of content, “comes the reality (not a threat any longer) that intellectual content — the text, images and videos – posted by the creator becomes easily appropriated for other use,” he said.

Alost cited a former student, who recently was surprised to find one of his photographs on an album cover. The album designer, Alost said, had apparently come across the image on the student’s Web site, and decided to use it. (The situation, he said, has since been resolved, with the student compensated for the work.)

Both Alost and Slaby cited techniques photographers and other visual artists use to safeguard their content – like posting small, low-resolution images and only uploading images tagged with watermarks.

But ultimately, Slaby said, the only real way to avoid problems with the content you post is to abstain from using any sort of social networking service, “Which to me,” he said, “ is like trying to force the cat back into the bag.”

Debatin echoed that same point, saying the only sure-fire ways to control your content is by not posting it at all. But, he added, “Reducing content itself is almost contradictory to the whole notion of social networking.”

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