Like many of you, I’ve been fascinated by the ongoing drama around Twitter over the past few months (and I’ve commented on part of it here, if you missed it). But to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter’s evolution has gone mostly unnoticed: its ongoing legal battle with a Manhattan court over the legal status of tweets posted by an Occupy Wall St. protestor.
In this case, the State of New York is arguing that a tweet, once uttered, becomes essentially a public statement, stripped of any protections. The judge in the case concurs: In this Wired coverage, for example, he is quoted as writing “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Twitter disagrees, based on its own Terms of Service, which state “what’s yours is yours – you own your Content.”
As the NYT puts it:
Twitter informed the (Occupy protestor) that the judge had ruled his words no longer belonged to him: (he) had turned them over to Twitter, in other words, to be spread across the world.
(Twitter’s) legal team appealed on Monday of last week. Tweets belong to the user, the company argued.
I find this line of argument compelling. Twitter is arguing that its users do not “turn over” their words to Twitter, instead, they license their utterances to the service, but retain rights of ownership, those rights remain with the person who tweets. It’s a classic digital argument – sure, my words are out there on Twitter, but those are a licensed copy of my words. The words – the ineffable words – are still *mine.* I still have rights to them! One of those rights may well be privacy (interesting given Twitter’s public nature, but arguable), but I can imagine this builds a case for other ownership rights as well, such as the right to repurpose those words in other contexts.
If that is indeed the case, I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when people may want to extract some or all their tweets, and perhaps license them to others as well. Or, they may want to use a meta-service (there’s that idea again) which allows them to mix and mash their tweets in various ways, and into any number of different containers. Imagine for a minute that one of those meta services gets Very Big, and challenges Twitter on its own turf. Should that occur, well, the arguments made in this Manhattan case may well come into very sharp focus. And it’s just those kind of services that are nervous about where Twitter is going.
Just noodling it out. I may be missing some key legal concept here, but this strikes me as a potentially important precedent. I plan to speak with folks at Twitter about all this soon, and hopefully, I’ll have some clarity. Stay tuned.
image credit: mediabistro.com
John Battelle is an entrepreneur, journalist, professor, and author who has founded or co-founded scores of online, conference, magazine, and other media businesses, including Wired Magazine and its spinoffs, including HotWired, the first commercial website to run banner ads. He is founder and chairman of Federated Media. http://battellemedia.com