I get the feeling you’re headed somewhere
with this. Nonetheless, you raise
issues worth examining
in the age of the Internet.
Let’s start at the top.
As you rightly presume,
the answer to
your first question is
no. It’s well established
the creator of content
owns the copyright.
Prior to the
1976 Copyright Act,
which were the topic
of the original column,
couldn’t be published
without the writer’s
permission except in
limited circumstances, and then
only by the recipient. Anybody else was out
After 1976, letters and other copyrightable
works became subject to the Copyright Act’s
“fair use” provision, which allows publication
of short excerpts—usually. In the 1980s,
reclusive author J.D. Salinger successfully
sued to prevent the quoting and paraphrasing
of his unpublished letters in a biography.
The court felt the author’s right to determine
first publication of his work tilted the fair use
balance in Salinger’s favor. You wouldn’t have
that problem quoting message board posts,
which have already been published. But this
is poorly charted territory; somebody might
still sue. Vindication could cost you a lot.
Your second question is trickier. If it’s
your blog, can’t you publish whatever
appears there? No. The law says, “Copyright
... vests initially in the author or authors of
the work.” Your blog’s comments section
is merely the canvas on which the creative
individual displays his genius. It’s as if you
own a building and a graffiti artist has
sprayed a brilliant original sonnet on your
wall. You can repaint the wall, or tear down
the building, but you can’t include the sonnet
in a poetry collection.
That brings us to your third question:
How does a user agreement change things?
Goodness, one thinks—am I granting first dibs on my kidneys, too? But then it got worse. Originally, Facebook agreed that once you removed your content from its site, its license to your stuff expired. Last winter, however, Facebook deleted that provision, implying that once you posted something, Facebook controlled it forevermore.
language, which now
reads, in part: “[Y]ou
grant us a non-exclusive,
worldwide license to use
any ... content that you
post on or in connection
with Facebook. ... This ...
license ends when you delete your
... content.” That restores the prior
status quo, but the gist remains: Anything
you leave posted here is ours to do with it
as we will.
The Straight Dope Message Board agreement
has a similar clause: “You grant [our
company] and its successors and assigns a
nonexclusive irrevocable right to reuse your
posting in any manner it or they see fit without
notice or compensation to you.” Big difference:
inclusion of “irrevocable.” That’s
there because a message board thread is
people talking to each other. If users later
can withdraw their part of the conversation,
what’s left becomes incomprehensible. So
the irrevocability of the SDMB license arguably
serves the greater good.
Still, the SDMB’s user agreement, like Facebook’s, grants a license that, on its face, is pretty broad. We’re the soul of discretion, and, no doubt, so is Facebook. However, suppose our evil clones, the FUMB and Scumbook, took their collective content to Bangkok to ... well, one shudders to think. Would the courts enforce the user agreements then? We’ll have to wait and find out.
Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.