Citizen Journalist Content: Who Owns It?

Original Article Published in

OhMyNews and Twin Cities Daily Planet

January 20, 2006

©2006 Gregory Daigle

 

Citizen Journalist Content - Who Owns It?

 

Citizen Journalism is a steadily growing phenomenon on the Internet.  These sites allow readers to customize their online news, submit links to articles, comment on stories, and even post their own work for others to read, as reported recently in Future Tense.  Journalism sites such as OhmyNews, Digg, Gather and Newsvine join mainstream news providers such as MSNBC in reaping the benefit of Internet Citizens writing news pieces for their services.  But each service has a very different and distinctive legal stance on who owns or may license the posted content.  For those content providers submitting expanded news articles or commentary this can be the difference between a book deal or no deal.

 

I'm not an attorney and none of my comments should be taken as a professional legal interpretation of the mentioned documents.  But despite my rather pedestrian and non-lawyerly interpretation of their end-user agreements, apparently some may create derivative works (e.g. screenplays with little or no restriction and not even give credit to the originating author.

 

MSNBC's Terms and Conditions</a> agreement covering Citizen Journalists states that for persons engaged in any form of communication "through this service, you are granting MSNBC a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to:  Use, copy, sublicense, adapt, transmit, publicly perform or display any such communication."  It also grants the aforementioned rights to third party sublicensees.  After all, it is MSNBC and as a big media player you would expect they'd hold onto as many rights as they could.

 

Digg states in its Terms of Service that "All uploaded, submitted or otherwise disclosed or distributed Content of any kind ... hereby falls under the Creative Commons Public Domain LIcense..."  That license requires the the persons associated with the work "dedicate" the copyright to the public domain.  In this instance "dedicate" means that the dedicator, "... makes this dedication for the benefit of the public at large and to the detriment of the Dedicator's heirs and successors. Dedicator intends this dedication to be an overt act of relinquishment in perpetuity of all present and future rights under copyright law, whether vested or contingent, in the Work."  In essence, once you submit content to Digg, all your claims to ownership are gone.

 

Newsvine, a recent entry into online citizen journalism, treats content somewhat differently.  Its User Agreement states that by transmitting or submitting user content to the site you are thereby granting it, "... a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, perpetual and fully sublicensable and transferable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such User Content throughout the universe in any media, now known or hereafter devised ..."  

 

Thoughout the universe?  That's a pretty exhausting and extensive right to use.  It goes on to say that "Newsvine shall have no duty to attribute authorship of User Content to you ..."  Tadspot and Stowe Boyd have similarly noted this dilution of the value of authorship.  And Mike Davison, the CEO of Newsvine, has replied saying, "...we don’t intend on doing anything with user-generated content that isn’t specifically decided upon by the user. It’s all very benevolent, I assure you, but you are right to dig into things and ask questions."  Yes it's understandable.  Yes they also have ad revenue sharing.  But it is still a bit stifling.  Kudos to Mike, though, for his openness.

 

Gather is a citizen news service that awards Gather Points for not only text content but also audio content.  Gather's User Terms of Service Agreement does not claim ownership of submitted content but assumes a "world-wide, royalty free, perpetual, unlimited, and non-exclusive license(s) to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, create derivative works, publicly perform and publicly display..." your content.  This also includes a right to syndicate the content.

 

This would seem to be not much different than Newsvine.  However, Gather is owned by APM, the radio people that bring you "A Prairie Home Companion", "Marketplace", "Weekend America" and dozens of other programs.  Gather is their venture into online media and it's a good one.  But their position as a significant media player and the ability to bridge between media types makes me worry about those "derivative works". 

 

OhmyNews is quite different from the others.  The first thing you'll notice in their Membership Registration Agreement is a statement of "OhmyNews' Obligations".  The other news services mentioned above have no such statement of their obligations, though user obligations are often cited at length.  Continuing down their document, OhmyNews' stand on copyright is straight forward: "The rights and responsibilities regarding general posted material lies with the Member who posts the material."  

 

Seeking a bit more clarification I contacted my editor at OhmyNews, Todd Thacker.  Mr. Thacker said "The copyright is yours, absolutely. You are free to republish at any time."  No other mention of ownership or co-ownership of content is made in their content agreements.  Perhaps this is why "nearly 70 OhmyNews citizen reporters now have contracts to write books" as reported in New Media Musings.  An author's copyright ownership is maintained without diminution or co-ownership, as it is with many other citizen news sites.  That has to be a major consideration for publishers looking for their next book deal to offer citizen reporters.

 

Perhaps the other news sites will take their lead from OhmyNews.  If not then they should be prepared to have content authors balk at submitting their best pieces for publication.

 

©2006 Gregory Daigle