Yesterday, a friend of mine on Twitter sent me a DM to alert me about a what she said “looks like aTwitter scraping tool”. I clicked the link expecting to find a social aggregator gone awry or a spam blog. However, instead, the link instead pointed to Joost de Valk’s new Tweetback plugin.
The plugin, as well as Dan Zarella’s plugin by the same name, searches Twitter to for tweets that link back to posts on the blog and displays those tweets on the site under their respective entries, much like a trackback, but with Twitter (hence the name).
These plugins do, by their very nature, copy and paste tweets, displaying them on the user’s Web site, all without the explicit permission to of the author. Where trackbacks are sent from the linking site and comments are left intentionally by the visitor, these plugins are different in that they activelhy go out in search of these “tweetbacks” (including parsing URL shortening services), even though the creator has taken no steps to ensure they appear on the site.
This, in turn, raises serious issues about copyright, scraping and more that have to be at least looked at. Is it legal to copy and publish tweets from others without permission, simply because they link back to your site? The answers are not as simple as one might initially think.
Back in May I posted a somewhat controversial article on this site about Twitter and Copyright. The article was more broad in nature but concluded that it was difficult, though not impossible, for a tweet to meet the criteria for copyrightability.
However, with tweetbacks, which link to original articles, there is even less potential for copyrightability. Not only does the URL reduce the potential character count, but typically such tweets are just a short, fact-based description of the post itself.
But this isn’t to say that such tweets could never be copyrightable. Shorter works, including Haiku, routinely do enjoy copyright protection and are sufficiently original enough to have that protection hold up in court.
The problem with copyright law is that it only takes one “perfect storm” to create trouble. If one tweet were to be copyrightable, the Twitter user had registered their feed, the user did not wish to see it appear elsewhere, discovered the use and was in a position to take action on it (including either registering the work with the USCO or being in a country with no such obligation), there could be issues. Though the odds of such a situation happening are incredibly slim, when you spread those odds across millions of Twitter users and hundreds of times as many tweets, it becomes at least an outside chance.
This isn’t to say that this should be a huge worry for those using these plugins, but that it is a possibility. However, there are still more factors to consider.
A More Likely Problem
Rather than someone using copyright to file a successful lawsuit or legitimate takedown notice. I would be more worried about someone using it as leverage to harass or annoy a blogger. Consider the following:
- A blogger creates a controversial post.
- A Twitter user links to the post in their account, likely to complain about it.
- Tweetback plugin grabs the tweet and reposts it.
- Twitter user either doesn’t understand or ignore copyright issues and files takedown notice to get it removed.
- Host complies, but is either forced to disable the entire post or have the user remove the plugin for the moment.
Though this situation is potentially very scary, it is actually a situation faced every time a blogger uses someone else’s content, even if it is just to quote it and do so within the bounds of what is likely fair use. Tweetbacks are hardly the only time this situation is encountered and, in my experience, certainly not the most dangerous.
People who are likely to get upset over, likely legitimate, use of their content typically do so over more deliberate use and not over automated ones, such as Tweetbacks. Quoting, citing and screenshots are, historically, much more risky behaviors.
Is It Scraping?
Another, though somewhat more broad, question is whether or not these plugins are guilty of “scraping” Twitter. The answer is most likely no.
If these plugins follow the API and its guidelines, and it seems there is no reason they wouldn’t, then an accusation of scraping would be hard to sustain. It would be like following a Creative Commons license and being accused of copyright infringement.
the easiest way would be to just delete the tweet themselves from their own stream (Note: I spoke with De Valk and he informed me that removing a tweet from your stream does NOT remove it from the search, not only does this create privacy issues in general, but negates this advantage at this time). However, with the De Valk’s plugin, depending on how it handles deleted tweets, it would likely remain up.
Is this to say that De Valk’s plugin is an infringement or that people who use it need to fear copyright problems? Not necessarily. Just that if Tweetbacks were to become a copyright issue, De Valk’s plugin would raise more issues.
These plugins are a pretty novel new use of Twitter and, with such newness comes a new set of potential legal questions. Though the likelihood of any serious copyright trouble from using Tweetbacks are slim to none, as with anything that is used by a large number of people, the popularity of a service increases the likelihood that someone will find themselves in a dispute.
Though I would be hard pressed to call Tweetbacks a form of “scraping”, considering that Twitter intentionally licenses such access to their data via an API and a TOS, it is easy to see how some users, not expecting or foreseeing that their Tweets could start appearing on other sites, could be upset and, since they are the ones that hold copyright interest in the work, they are the ones with the right to file any copyright complaint.
However, the likelihood of such copyright complaints rising to anything beyond saber rattling are slim to none. Simply put, most tweets aren’t likely copyrightable, even more so for those including links. The bigger danger is that the copyright issues could be used as an excuse to harass a site with the plugin installed.
Still, it might be worthwhile to warn visitors that, if they tweet your post, it will appear as a Tweetback. Displaying tweetbacks should be warning enough, but offering “Tweet This” tools and an explicit statement can’t hurt either.
However, even without such warnings, the risks and issues that exist with tweetbacks also exist any time one uses content from another source, no matter how legitimate the use.
In the end, though there are some logical comparisons between tweetbacks and traditional RSS scraping, but the likely lack of copyrightable material and blank check permission from Twitter separates tweetbacks from it.
Furthermore, unlike RSS scraping, most Twitter users are likely going to be happy to have their tweets displayed on other sites. With so little time going into each Tweet and almost no SEO benefit, there is little lost in having one’s Twitter feed scraped. However, given the social nature of Twitter, there may be a lot to be gained.
Still, it only takes one person to create a problem and, until that person appears, it remains to be seen what the exact implications are.