If You Don’t Own It, You Will Lose It

This post is going to seem strange coming from someone who is using WordPress, a free service, instead of running his own server, but still. I’ll deal with that bit at the end here. Right now:

Second Life Users File Class Action Lawsuit Over Virtual Land

Before you scoff too much at this seemingly ludicrous lawsuit, remember that virtual worlds aren’t just “funny money” and avatars. They’re serious business, both for the owners and investors who profit from them and for the users who pump hundreds and even thousands of dollars each into creating characters and interacting online.

Some of those people playing Second Life just got raped by Real Life. They’ve just found out how things can be changed on them behind their backs.

Recently, the Library of Congress decided to grab and store every damned tweet that had ever been made. Although this is the Internet and some things can live forever, tweets are an ephemeral thing and storing them at the Library of Congress was never something that ever crossed my mind, despite the fact I’ve decried how we have been losing history. Personally, I now have to deal with the fact my tweets might outlive me. But, I knew I didn’t own the damned things, so I must accept this.

But how many people out there understand what they really own when it comes to the Internet?

Look at the shock an established business, Video Professor, got in a recent lawsuit against Amazon:

Amazon Wins Keyword Advertising Suit–Video Professor v. Amazon

Amazon doesn’t win this case on First Sale grounds (although it should have). Instead, Video Professor was an Amazon vendor for a while, and Amazon makes vendors enter into a “Vendor Manual” that contains a perpetual trademark license. Therefore, Amazon successfully defended its keyword purchases as being authorized by this perpetual trademark license. Summary judgment for Amazon. This is a neat legal trick by Amazon and almost assuredly a boilerplate “gotcha” for most Amazon vendors, who probably didn’t fully understand the implications of the boilerplate language.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

That sounds rather reasonable, though, doesn’t it?

Amazon: We need your permission to use your trademark on our site.

Video Professor: Oh, you’re right. (signs contract)


Video Professor: Hey, stop using our trademark like that!

Amazon: Oh, you don’t like that we’re now using your trademark in a way that siphons sales from you? Too bad. You gave us that permission. And we can do this forever! (Cue honking cackle of Jeff Bezos.)

If an established business can get bitchslapped like that, what about the individual who is not savvy about contract law, legal precedents, and even cyberlaw that is yet to be formed?

I have submitted things to Twitter, TwitPic, and YouTube. All of that stuff can be taken away from me. In the case of Twitter, they can lock me out of my account based on any spurious allegation they deem plausible in their own eyes (I was once sandboxed too). TwitPic can go away at any time — but everything I’ve put there originated from my hard drive, so I still have copies. And there is nothing I’ve put there that has any particular value. The same with YouTube.

When money enters into the equation on the Internet, you’d better know what you’re getting into. Seeing the phrase “in perpetuity” is a Red Alert signal. There is no justification for that, ever. All clauses should be for the life of the contract, period.

All of you writers placing things on Scribd, the Kindle Store, Smashwords, and the like — did you check the contracts/Terms of Service you were signing/agreed to? If one of you hit it big, what exploitation rights did you wind up giving away that would let a third party cash in on your new popularity when you’d rather not have them do so? What possible future embarrassment did you leave yourself open to? What happens if you’ve long ago pulled your work from a site yet they still have the right to use your name? Or worse: re-issue your work because you unknowingly granted them permission “in perpetuity”?

As for me and WordPress, I can at least export all of my crap to XML (and I do so). I don’t put anything here that I consider fungible. It’s as ephemeral as a tweet, really, only longer.

And when it comes time for me to sell my own books, you can be damned sure I’ll be doing it from my own server, without granting rights “in perpetuity” to anyone else.

Some of you out there have some thinking to do. Never go for the short term — it’s the long term that matters.

Make sure you really own your property.

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