Twitter's TOS: Who Owns Your Tweets?

Twitter announced updates to its Terms of Service last week, throwing additional fuel on an already heated debate: who owns the content you post online? The seemingly obvious answer, the user-creator is owner, may not be the case. For example, your tweets can be used for:
  • Data for an API
  • Retweets
  • Display on someone else's website
  • Quotation, with or without attribution
All of these are ways for someone else to profit from your writing, without the benefit ever reaching you. To further obscure the issue, the new TOS includes this:
You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. 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).
Within a single paragraph, ownership is granted to the user-creator while usage is granted to Twitter. WebProNews quotes one user as saying, "If Twitter can do what they want with ‘our’ tweets, including reproduction for their own (financial) gain, what do we actually 'own'?"

The issue has come up from the other side as well, notably the recent "Facebook Murder" case and various cyber-bullying trials. Here the question is what responsibility does Facebook bear for the content posted by users? Combined, these questions of ownership and responsibility mean that most social networks and other online services gain the benefit but not the liability for all user-generated content.

This mirrors the debate about liability in BIM (read the comments from this BD+C post about mandatory BIM in Texas); everyone wants credit for their work on the project, but no one wants liability for bad information, faulty design, or whatever other problems might occur. Furthermore, once a model is designed, who owns the information?

In light of these issues, how can building product manufacturers protect themselves and their information?

The first key step is to be sure that any information posted online is technically accurate: guide specs, BIM models, CAD details, technical literature, MSDS, etc. should be reviewed carefully, preferably by a third-party architect, engineer, or other technical specialist. This may require a material testing program to get independent confirmation of the qualities claimed, especially for life-safety issues such as surface burning characteristics.

Secondly, refer people to the company website wherever possible. Twitter makes this easy; it's hard to fit extensive product detail into 140 characters or less, so tweets usually redirect users to the full article elsewhere. On blogs and networks like LinkedIn, however, there can be a temptation to post full-text of data sheets. Avoid this impulse; link to the appropriate page on the website instead. That way users will always find the most current information, and the issue of content-ownership is diminished. If Twitter or another network claims usage rights, all they have to use is a tweet saying "For more information, visit....".

The issue of content ownership is going to evolve rapidly over the next few years. Lawsuits are already testing the issue. Until a clear path emerges, the best way for manufacturers to protect themselves is focusing on these fundamentals.