My tweet was in the paper! Wait… am I okay with that?

By DJ Kelly September 24, 2009

On Tuesday I was informed that one of my tweets from the previous day had been published in the Calgary edition of Metro Daily.

“That’s cool,” I thought. And it escaped my mind for the rest of the day.

On my way home I started thinking about some of the conversations I’ve had with Metro editor Darren Krause over the past year, as I pondered “Why that tweet?”. And slowly I began thinking about Canadian copyright law.

I’m a big proponent of the Open Data movement, but I’ve never really jumped on the ‘net neutrality’ bandwagon or the participated in discussions earlier this year and last about the proposed changes to the Canadian copyright laws. The concept never really ignited a passion in me as other technology issues have. But here I was wondering to myself if someone just stole my work.

It’s important that I note I’m not upset Metro reprinted my tweet. I probably wouldn’t be opposed to them doing it again. (Hopefully something less innocuous.) But hear me out as I chart my own journey into the world of the internet and copyright.

So, the first question I asked myself was: “Did they have a right to re-print my tweet?” I’ve often thought of Twitter as being a way of sharing information – whether it be an important link or something goofy that happened to me – with my ‘followers’. When I thought about Metro re-printing the tweet, I found I had this feeling that a communication between me and my ‘followers’ – a formal, structured relationship that comes with certain understandings – had been violated. Suddenly there are other people paying attention.

But Twitter by nature is a public forum. There is nothing stopping the casual observer from simply going to my Twitter page on a regular basis and reading what I’ve written. In fact, if one were to do this you would see much more content than any official ‘follower’ because of the limitations of Twitter’s @replies introduced a few months back. (A follower will only see an @reply I send to another follower if they themselves are following the other person. It sounds more complicated than it is, but I digress.) So the question begs, “Did Metro really do anything that the average person would not have been able to do by facilitating the stumbling across of my comment?”

I did however post my comment in full knowledge someone might stumble across it online. I also had the knowledge this had a very low likelihood of happening unless the tweet were about something specific that person was searching for. In which case I would probably welcome their attention as completely in context. This is where the idea of ‘permission’ comes in. By posting a tweet I have given my permission for people to read it in any one of these potential situations. But permission was not ‘given’ – expressly or indirectly – to Metro, or Metro readers, to read what I wrote.

This of course leads to the big question: How would someone feel if it wasn’t just a 140 character sentence Metro published? What if it was an entire article used without obtaining the author’s permission first?

Knowing Darren and many others in the print media, this is the kind of thing they would not stand for. It is the single most repugnant and offensive of thoughts to writers and editors. As a group they value their product – their writings – more than you could possibly imagine. What they write is their livelihood and it bears the kinds of protection you would place on your own job. They certainly would not have reprinted, say, a blog post I wrote. It would be sacrilegious. So why is it okay to reprint a tweet?

Do I even own the words I wrote?

I suppose I could turn to the Twitter terms of service to answer the latter question. In the post from Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder, that came with the recent update to the user terms, he says in no uncertain terms, “your tweets belong to you, not to Twitter”. However the terms do say:

By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

By my reading that means Twitter, the company, can do most anything with my content, even though I own the thought behind them. But under what terms do I allow others to view or use my tweets/writings/thoughts? This is not part of Twitter’s terms of service as near as I can find.

Twitter is often described as ‘micro-blogging’, so perhaps I can look to how I might tackle a similar issue if the information being reprinted was coming from there instead of Twitter. On my blog I have no confusion in this area at all. I have added a Creative Commons license that appears on every page of the site. If a reader clicks on it it let’s all readers know that they are welcome to share or adapt my work so long as they attribute the work to me.

So does this mean that by Metro highlighting my tweet as by “@djkelly”? Or that the Calgary Herald could reprint a blog post by saying “by DJ Kelly”? I’m not sure.

I found myself eventually wondering if my tweets and blog posts are more like a comment made at a town hall meeting by a politician being reported in the paper the next day. Certainly the politician did not expressly give permission for his words to be reprinted, but there is an understanding that once it is in the public domain it may be repeated and attributed to him or her. Good, bad or otherwise.

As you can tell, I’m just “thinking out loud” here. I don’t have any answers, just as I’m not complaining about Metro re-printing a tweet. What I’m trying to sort out is how I feel about where we are heading as a society as more and more information becomes more and more easily accessible. Who owns my thoughts? What processes should be followed to ensure what we are doing is ‘right’ or ‘moral’?

These are all important questions that need to be answered. But for now I’m going to just think about how cool it is that Metro is printing tweets. Awesome.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

PS – I purposefully did not include the text to the tweet in question because it has little bearing on my thoughts around this issue. However if you are insatiably curious like I am, here is a link to the reprinted tweet.