Consider this, if you will: I decide to write a book through Twitter, 140 characters at a time. Moroever, I do this stream-of-consciousness style, and just let it all flow out. I keep no backup. I write my book, tweet after tweet after tweet. Soon, thousands and thousands of my words are in the system.
For their own reasons, Twitter decides I’ve done something wrong, and suspends my account. All my work is lost.
What are my legal rights? Who owns those tweets? Can I get them back?
In Twitter’s terms of service, under a section called, “Copyright (What’s Yours is Yours)”, they state:
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.
We encourage users to contribute their creations to the public domain or consider progressive licensing terms.
That’s fine, but under “General Conditions”, they also say:
We reserve the right, in accordance with any applicable laws, to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.
We’ve seen this happen before with accounts such as the fake Christopher Walken. The reasons for the suspension of that user were fairly clear, but what about all those tweets that he wrote? They’ve also been removed without a trace. The account had a loyal and amused following, and those tweets were funny and had value.
Twitter doesn’t provide any kind of backup service within the site; external ways to ‘save’ your tweets exist, but they’re more than little crude. The majority of tweets are, of course, hardly worth keeping forever, but some are. And I can see many instances in the future where Twitter will be used for different purposes and more and more of these tweets will have value.
One obvious example is where Twitter breaks a news story before anywhere else because the submitter was on the scene when it took place. That tweet becomes a source – who does it belong to?
Moreover, say Twitter decides to produce The Book Of Tweets, and selects 10,000 of the greatest-ever updates for publication. Can they do that without the permission of the authors? Can anybody do that without permission of the authors? Where is the line?
This is a very hazy area and my gut feeling tells me that until a legal precedent is set it’s going to remain that way. Until then, you might want to think about it a little – who owns your tweets? And would you be happy for somebody else to make money off them without your permission?