Every time a new technology comes along that aides communication, copyright inevitably becomes an issue with it, at least to some degree. From piano rolls to radios to televisions to the Web, every great technology has shifted the copyright landscape and has had its course altered, at least in some way, by those protections.
Twitter is no different in that regard, whether it is just a fad or the beginnings of something larger, Twitter as a technology raises copyright questions that are not easy to answer. The microblogging service is difficult to fit into any of the current copyright paradigms and seems to challenge what many think about posting on the Web.
So what copyright issues, if any, might exist with Twitter? To answer that, I’m going to take a look at the service from various angles to see if any potential copyright conflicts await the service.
Your Rights at Twitter
Twitter, in their terms of service, make it very clear that you own the rights to anything you post to the service. However, when looking at what is actually posted, such a statement seems almost unnecessary.
Twitter’s 140 character limit makes it difficult, though not impossible, to post a work that reaches the standard for copyrightability. Though short works, such as Haiku, can be protected by copyright, the majority of items posted to Twitter would not likely be seen as “original works of authorship”. They are simply too short and don’t usually reach the requisite level of creativity.
That being said, some tweets could be copyrighted if they met the description and, almost certainly, a collection of tweets from the same person could be copyrightable if they could be seen as one large work broken apart over many entries.
It is unclear how the courts would rule on this but such a case is unlikely. Simply put, the odds that the content of a tweet is both valuable enough to warrant a lawsuit and is properly registered with the copyright office is extremely unlikely.
The odds of anyone seriously pursuing copyright infringement of their tweets is slim to none.
Infringement On Twitter
The same as the character limit makes it difficult to claim and enforce copyright in a tweet, it also makes it difficult to infringe copyright on Twitter. With such a short limit, almost any content use would likely be considered fair. Furthermore, even if one decided there was an infringement on Twitter, most likely it would not be worth the effort to even file a takedown notice with the service.
The greatest risk, however, is with Twitter’s ability allow users to swap links. Though certainly safer than posting the content yourself, posting links to material known to be infringing can, in some cases, be an infringement itself. Services such as TwitPic make it easy to upload content and share them via link through Twitter, raising the possibility of users posting infringing works there and using Twitter as a means to promote it.
However, those issues would be taken up with those services and not with Twitter itself. In most cases, the copyright holder would just demand takedown of that work and would go through the standard DMCA process, such as what is outlined on TwitPic’s site.
It is unlikely that a Twitter user, simply by linking to allegedly infringing content, especially if they were unaware of the issues, could run into any significant trouble.
Twitter, for their part, seems to be well protected under current copyright law. Their service almost certainly qualifies for protection under the DMCA Safe Harbor provisions, meaning that they are not likely to be held liable for any infringement that does take place through their service so long as they have no knowledge of it, do not profit directly from it and remove it if properly notified.
On their site, Twitter has a very complete copyright policy that includes all of the pertinent information regarding how to file a DMCA complaint. However, they have not registered their designated agent with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Unlike many new Web services, Twitter itself does not raise any significant copyright issues that could come back to haunt the company itself.
None of this is to say that Twitter is never going to raise any legal issues, just that, from a copyright standpoint, there is not a lot to worry about at this time. There are still other ways Twitter users could find themselves in legal hot water, including the following:
Invasion of Privacy: What you reveal about yourself over Twitter is your own business, but revealing private information about others without their permission can cause trouble. Even something as simple as saying where someone is can, under some situations, be considered an invasion of privacy.
Defamation: Damaging someone’s reputation by posting false information about them can lead to legal action in and of itself. Even seemingly harmless jokes, when taken the wrong way, can lead to such conflicts. Be careful of what you say on Twitter.
Trademark: If your Twitter username might cause others confusion, thinking that you have a relationship with a company or product when one does not exist, or you use Twitter to otherwise dilute a trademarked name, you could find yourself dealing with legal consequences.
In short, there are many reasons to be careful about what you say on Twitter, copyright just isn’t likely one of them.
From a legal perspective, Twitter is not much different than any other kind of blogging. Though the character limit puts a cap on the potential for copyright issues, one still have to be careful what they say and how they say it.
It is easy, when working on the Web, to lose sight of the fact that behind the screen names and email addresses are other human beings. As such, we often say and do things that we wouldn’t dream of doing in civilized society.
However, those actions can come with real-world consequences and it is important to keep the legal dangers in mind when doing anything on the Web, be it blogging, sharing photos or using Twitter.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit and the best way to avoid that is to consider the potential consequences before you act and show respect to others with everything you do.
There is no way to guarantee you will never be sued, but you can certainly minimize the chances of it.