Confusion in the Minds of On-line Content Post-ers

25 February 2009

The Vanderbilt Hustler printed a short article this week entitle "Facebook: Price of a Profile."  (Online version: "Vanderbilt Students Remain Unconcerned with Facebook Terms Change")  Part of the article discusses why some people in the Vanderbilt community did not care about Facebook's new terms of service, which recently caused such a massive uproar. 

The article also shows us misconceptions held by people who use sites like Facebook or post content on-line in other fashions.  Some of these misconceptions are rather disturbing.  These are smart and probably fairly tech savvy people at a good school, yet they seem to have little understanding of their own rights in their content.  The following are quotes included in the article:

    • " soon as you join you lose rights because it is posted on the internet." - a sophomore student
    • "If you put it on a Web site... It's in the public domain." - a sophomore student
    • "As I understand it, the old license gave copyright to the user, while the new one gave ownership to the Facebook corp."  - an associate professor

The first two misconceptions are about posting content online in general and are related to each other in that each student believes that by posting their content online, they have given up all rights to it.  This is not true.  Simply posting content you created on the internet does not mean you give up your rights to it. 

In most cases, the site to which you post your content will require you to agree to license your content to them for certain uses.   The sites will at least require you to license your content to them for the purpose for which you are using the site.  For example, Blogger requires that you agree to license to Google (which runs Blogger) a "worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce, publish and distribute such Content on Google services for the purpose of displaying and distributing Google services," i.e. you are allowing Blogger to post your writings.  Other sites, such as Facebook, use a much broader license that includes rights to use your content commercially, change your content or sublicense your content out to third parties. 

These licenses define how the company who manages the site you are using may use your content, they do not mean you have given up all your rights, and it certainly doesn't mean your content is in the public domain.  The public domain consists of works that are no longer covered by copyright protection.  Either the term of copyright has expired, or the creator has chosen to put their work directly into the public domain for anyone to use freely with no requirements (example).  While posting your work to the internet does put out there publicly, it does not put it into the public domain.

Lastly, neither the old or new(revoked) Facebook terms of service gave ownership of the content to Facebook.  The difference between the old, reenacted, Facebook terms and the new terms was that the new terms did not allow users to revoke the broad license included in the terms of service by removing their content.

These misconceptions may tell us a bit about how users perceive on-line content in general, aside from their own postings.  We'll explore that more next time.


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