Which terms are you on?

Billy Bragg’s music is back on MySpace, and we should all be pleased.

Even if you’re not a fan of his jangling guitar, political sensibilities and poetry of failed relationships and broken promises – and I am –  it’s great to see an artist with such a long history making good use of the network to reach a new audience.

Bragg first appeared on the fast-growing networking site last October. Like many musicians he put songs online so that other users could listen to them or even add them to their home page so that others would hear them.

But in May this year all the music was taken down because, as a posting to his blog pointed out ‘someone who we work with was bright enough to read the small print of the MySpace terms and conditions and found that once an artist posts up any content (including songs), it then belongs to My Space… and they can do what they want with it, throughout the world’.

This was perhaps overstating the case, and at the time MySpace blamed what they call ‘the legalese’,  but the terms and conditions from March this year did give them the right to ‘use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, and distribute’ anything uploaded onto the site – and this was sufficiently broad to worry any professional musician, especially one like Bragg who has carefully retained ownership of his work and knows how licenses operate.

So the music was removed, and MySpace was told that their terms were not acceptable.

As a result of the comments made by Bragg and the general publicity his move generated MySpace has done the right thing and come up with a far simpler and more defensible set of terms for using the site.

They begin by making it clear that ‘MySpace.com does not claim any ownership rights’  and then go on to explain what rights you grant, and why they need them. For example the terms state that ‘without the right to publicly perform Member Content, MySpace.com could not allow Users to listen to music posted by Members’.

This is a sensible approach, and they deserve credit for making the change, even if it would have been better if they had been more careful from the start.

Unfortunately MySpace isn’t the only social networking company that seems to think that grabbing as many rights as they can, either because their lawyers are too lazy to come up with a decent contract or just in case they can figure out a way to make money from them in future, is the way to go.

I’ve just taken down a really cool film from the video-sharing service YouTube because their terms are ambiguous. It was made for the Cambridge Film Festival by director and photographer Bruce Weber, the man who photographed the Calvin Klein ads, and  I’d uploaded it so that it would get a wider audience.

But since uploading grants YouTube ‘a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successor’s) business… in any media formats and through any media channels’ I don’t feel comfortable putting anything of value up there any more.  So the film has gone, at least until they see sense about what they can reasonably ask for in terms of rights.

The whole question of what rights service providers get is not new, but it has recently become more important simply because so many of us now create and upload material to networking and sharing websites.

Back in 2001 Microsoft’s terms for using the Passport signin service that sits behind HotMail and MSN Messenger claimed rights to use any material that was sent over the network. It even said that Microsoft could ‘exploit any proprietary rights in such communication’ and that ‘no compensation will be paid with respect to Microsoft’s use of the materials contained within such communication.’

As commentators like The Register’s Andrew Orlowski pointed out at the time, this would mean that if you emailed a business plan from a HotMail account then Microsoft could take your ideas as their own. The company quickly changed the terms, and the current Passport license is much simpler and less contentious.

Yet two years later Google did the same thing with its Orkut social networking site, and now we see the next generation of services that rely on social networking and user-generated content doing the same thing.  It seems the lawyers never learn.

While the details of licenses and terms and conditions may not seem to matter much, copyright and the assertion of those rights are vital in all sorts of areas.  If you’re an unsigned band who then makes it big, do you want YouTube putting out all of your early videos on a compilation disk without having to ask you?

Nor is the argument simply about retaining copyright, since none of the services try to take it away.  BBC News likes to get photos of news events from members of the public, and it makes it clear that ‘you still own the copyright to everything you contribute.’

This sounds fine, until you realise that by sending in a picture  you give the BBC the right  to  ‘publish and otherwise use the material in any way that we want, and in any media worldwide’.

Retaining copyright is not enough if you’ve granted a license to a large commercial company to exploit your material ‘in any way that we want.’

A great deal of time and energy is currently going into writing the newest version of the GNU General Public License, the legal contract that sits behind a lot of the free software we all use, like the GNU/Linux operating system.

Now would seem to be a good time for those who create the material that sustains MySpace, YouTube, Orkut, MSN Spaces and all the other sites that rely on user-generated content to start thinking about what a general content license would look like.
Bill’s Links
Bragg on MySpace
BBC reports
YouTube Terms
Updated MySpace Terms
Microsoft was there first

3 Replies to “Which terms are you on?”

  1. Surprised not to see a mention of Creative Commons licences (http://creativecommons.org/) which do provide people with a variety of ways of licencing their own content to others.

    [Bill says: CC doesn’t really help when you have a license set by the site host that gives the terms on which they will use your material – even if you’re using a CC license this will replace it for that site, I believe. We need a content license that hosting companies adopt – perhaps CC will lead in this area? I’ll email Larry…]

  2. Flickr supports the use of CC licensing, but I did notice that the standard Flickr T&C does grant Flickr the “usual, non evil” rights, irrespective of CC licensing, which I suppose is fair enough – it would be a bit hard for people to share non-commercial CC licensed material on a commercial site otherwise.

    I think what’s needed is an “inverse” common license, where Service providers use a standard licence that grants them the rights they need, with a plain language version and CC style graphics. And as the license would come from a single organization (just like the Creative Commons), people would only need to get to grips with one set of service provider licenses, instead of having to dig around and work what’s different between Google’s license and Yahoo’s and MySpace’s etc. The reason why I call it an inverse license is that it’s the service provider setting out the terms and not the rights owner, even though it’s the rights owner granting the license.

  3. This is an interesting issue and one I’ve come across a number of times during my normal working day.

    I work a lot with unsigned bands who often put stuff on My Space or You Tube and many have had fantastic opportunities including gigs and the chance to be on a compilation CD come out of it.

    But a number of the bands (especially the more established) have started taking their material down because of these wide open licences sites impose – I know at least 15 groups that removed music from MySpace until the T&Cs were changed.

    I completely agree with scot – we need a standard licence across all service providers and for a number of services like MySpace and YouTube this could be achieved easily by doing a Flickr and giving users the choice of assigning a Creative Commons licence to their work.

    For sites like the BBC, CNN etc… the Inverse licence is probably more suitable due to the fact that the user libraries don’t exist in the same way as they do for My Space or Flickr.

    If all sites that ask for submissions (that might not even be used) subscribed to a standard licence (like Creative Commons for Publishers) then it would make people feel a little more comfortable sharing their work – and this is something that media companies WILL rely on more and more.

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