SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - E-businesses that are too grasping in claims to ownership of their customers' content may find themselves holding a tiger by the tail.
Readers responded to my recent column about "content-grabbing" licenses with outrage or bemusement (see "The new licensing terms: When you create content, it belongs to someone else," www.infoworld.com/printlinks). Many were upset to find some vendors also have licenses that claim intellectual property rights to content created by users. Others were intrigued with some of the consequences they foresee greedy vendors possibly bringing upon themselves.
Just to review, the content-grabbing terms I'm talking about are of the type exemplified last year by Yahoo Inc. when it introduced language to the terms of service for newly acquired GeoCities that claimed ownership of all content posted by the Web-hosting service's customers. The hallmark of these terms is the company's all-encompassing assertion of rights to use the content for any purpose it chooses. More reasonable terms, such as those Yahoo eventually adopted for GeoCities, make it clear that the user is granting rights only for the limited and obvious purposes that are the point of the transaction: posting a message he or she wants others to read.
Vendors with content-grabbing licenses invariably say that people are reading too much into what the words seem to say and that they have no intention of actually selling customers' content. But readers pointed out a number of situations where they've seen evidence that the words do mean what they say.
One reader reported that, even after protracted negotiations, a mapping-software vendor refused to change wording in its license that appeared to give the company rights to the maps customers create.
"The negotiations between them and the lawyers went on for a little more than six months," the reader wrote. "After that amount of time, we got fed up and cancelled the order. The feedback I got from them was 'we're trying to get this resolved,' but [they] were somewhat indignant that we had a problem with the clause to begin with; their response several times was 'others don't have a problem with the clause.' ""All you have to do is look at the licensing agreements connected to the genealogy information of many 'free' genealogy sites out there and you will see it is exactly what you complain about," wrote another reader. "The implication, however, is that all these good folks who have uploaded their findings are spending hours and hours in libraries[and] their own funds in accessing documents in national, state, and local archives, stomping around in cemeteries, and collecting up those ancestors. Then they put what they know out for public consumption and to make 'family' connections. The more mercenary site owners are already taking the information and turning it into mass market CD-ROMs for purchase by many, many libraries."
Many readers believe that content-grabbing tactics could backfire. Owning all that content means they own the good and the bad, after all. Might that not mean that they could be held responsible for the bad stuff?
"If these sites are so gung ho on appropriating all content on their sites, aren't they then liable for any slander, libel, pornography, sedition, treason, and other offensive content?" wrote one reader. "They can't have it both ways.
Either they own it or they don't."
Of course, the main theme of all of these licenses is that the e-business disclaims all responsibility for anything customers do with their service, so vendors certainly intend to have it both ways. I won't even try to guess in what, if any, situations they might actually be held liable, but at the very least I think they'll find their content-grabbing terms lead them into some ugly places. For example, a porn-site operator wrote he's delighted to see big online services using content-grabbing licenses because it means he can threaten to sue them when their users post pictures they stole from his site.
The biggest threat vendors with content-grabbing terms are opening themselves up to isn't a legal one; it's political. Several readers pointed to the Columbine shootings and another case last fall in New Hampshire where a young woman was slain by a stalker who'd posted his plans ahead of time on many Web sites. After such tragedies, everyone looks for someone to blame and, inevitably, some fingers get pointed at the online services because they didn't monitor e-mail or Web sites.
The last thing any of us want is for ISPs to be forced to monitor our online activities. We might as well just shut down the Internet and find something else to play with. But vendors who lay claim to their users' content are running the risk of inciting public wrath all the more if they come under scrutiny after the next tragedy. Is it worth it?
Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at firstname.lastname@example.org.