25 Feb 2010 7 am eastern

You cannot copyright a Tweet

Contrary to popular belief and Twitter’s terms of service, you cannot copyright a Tweet. Under US law, copyright is granted on publication to “original works of authorship” finalized in “fixed forms of expression” but this does not extend to names, titles, or short phrases (PDF).

As messages sent via Twitter cannot be longer than 140 characters, they cannot be copyrighted. However original, witty, or profound they may be, nothing more than good manners protects your original expression of authorship. If you wish to let other people quote or use your Tweets, you need not “license” them; indeed, technically, you cannot license them, since they are in the public domain the instant you publish them.

If you write a clever Tweet and wish to assert ownership (and if money is no object), you may apply for a trademark. Good luck with that.

Otherwise, your Tweets are like the air. Anyone can do anything like to them, including quoting them with or without your permission. If an enterprising company wants to take something you said on Twitter and slap it on a tee shirt, they may do so. If a gent of the disturbed persuasion wants to engrave your tweet into a 600-foot swastika, he may do so.

If this disturbs you, suck it up, or stop using Twitter—or mark your Twitter feed as private. This will not copyright your Twitter mutterings but it will keep many people from seeing them.

If it deeply disturbs you (and money is no object), mount a case to change the law.

Me, I plan to use Twitter forever. And any party so inclined may make a whistle of my Tweets. But my saying so here is irrelevant because you cannot copyright a Tweet.


Update: Comments are now closed, but you may read what others had to say. Thanks to all for a lively and illuminating discussion.


Filed under: business, content, copyright, creativity, The Essentials, tweets, twitter

112 Responses to “You cannot copyright a Tweet”

  1. GoodManneredDude said on

    All I Really want to know is how you do that trick with the select color on your bloggy. It’s awesome beyond words.

  2. Sahil said on

    Thanks for this.

  3. victor said on

    What if the tweet is a short piece of code? Can then be copyrighted and licensed?

    And what if it is ASCII art? These examples don’t fall under short phrases, do they?

  4. Pawel Decowski said on

    That’s according to US law, though. I wonder what the situation is in the UK and other countries.

    Having said that, I think licensing tweets is a ridiculous idea.

  5. John Rainsford said on

    You should trademark http://twitter.com/zeldman/status/9196594724 and sell it on tshirts. You’d make a mint.

  6. Tuhin Kumar said on

    I had been planning to write this one, but I guess you beat me to it. I remeber a CCTweet service website longtime. I would love to know the implications of the service if at all it is for real!

  7. Matt Robin said on

    Wait, wasn’t this the whole reason for this site: http://tweetcc.com/

  8. Tuhin Kumar said on

    @Goodmannereddude Use a selector http://css-tricks.com/overriding-the-default-text-selection-color-with-css/ Hope that helps!

  9. Andreas Gebhard said on

    Good point.

    It might get interesting when non-US users and their respective copyright laws come into play…

  10. kimblim said on

    @GoodManneredDude:
    CSS3 is your friend: http://css-tricks.com/overriding-the-default-text-selection-color-with-css/ (no affiliation with the site – first hit on google)

  11. You cannot copyright a Tweet – Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report – Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report said on

    [...] to popular belief and Twitter’s terms of service, you cannot copyright a Tweet. (More) via [...]

  12. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Wait, wasn’t this the whole reason for this site:

    Yes. That’s why I said:

    If you wish to let other people quote or use your Tweets, you need not “license” them; indeed, technically, you cannot license them, since they are in the public domain the instant you publish them.

    (Sorry, Malarkey.)

  13. Michel said on

    Very good points, Jeffrey!

    I think that you may currently license your Twitter stream under any of the available Creative Commons licenses, but this is optional and anyone, anyway, can use any of your tweets, with or without quoting you… :)

    On the other hand… If I quote you in a blog post of mine…

    As messages sent via Twitter cannot be longer than 140 characters, they cannot be copyrighted. However original, witty, or profound they may be, nothing more than good manners protects your original expression of authorship.

    …should I ask for a written permission to quote you? Maybe pay you a fee? Will I break any copyright law by quoting a moderate part of what you said? I don’t think so… and this is good! :)

    I still think that we, people, are wise enough to cite our sources, when needed. And I am not in the least worried if someone uses any of my (wise|stupid|funny|pointless) Twitter thoughts somewhere else… I think I’d be even happy, if someone finds them worth enough so as to quote any of them or use them at all… ;)

  14. Mike Whitehurst said on

    but can you Tweet a copyright?

  15. GoodManneredDude said on

    @kimblim: Thank you so much. Bookmarking now.
    @Jeffrey: Thank you for wishing us good luck.

  16. Pete B said on

    Surely the timestamp on the tweet is the proof of originality, if you need to prove anything

  17. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    All I Really want to know is how you do that trick with the select color on your bloggy. It’s awesome beyond words.

    Why, thank you.

    This Tweet explains:

    Selection pseudo-element. Choose text color/BG color when user selects text!

    Here’s the relevant CSS, which you may wish to view in context.

    /* Brand the selection */
    ::-moz-selection { color: #000;  background: #f60; }
    ::selection      { color: #000;  background: #f60; }
    

  18. Robert Accettura said on

    That does raise the question… Can you infringe on a copyright via a tweet? I’d argue no under the same pretense, but I’m virtually certain the courts would disagree in that case.

  19. Eric TF Bat said on

    As a possible refutation, I refer you to the case of Mr Ashleigh Brilliant of California, who managed to get a 17-word “epigram” protected by copyright. Does that have any bearing on your case? It may be too old, but it’s not as old as the “no short phrases” clause if Wikipedia is to be believed.

  20. jllk said on

    Individual tweets not, but what about entire Twitter feeds? A book is collection of uncopyrightable sentences, but a whole can be copyritghted. Isn’t Twitter feed analogous?

  21. Andy Clarke said on

    The original point of tweetCC was not so much to handle directly issues of copyright, but to solve a problem I (and some others had).

    When I was writing my last book, the publisher was ‘insane’ about getting permissions to show other people’s work. The same extended to the DVDs I made. Maybe you (and other authors had different rules), but for me, this was a royal pain in the arse.

    tweetCC helps people makes it explicit that “hey, go ahead. Use my tweet. You don’t need to ask.” It therefore makes it easier for me to use tweets without fear of someone coming back later with “hey, you used my tweet without asking” which they “do” do, rightly or wrongly, copyright or no copyright.

  22. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    should I ask for a written permission to quote you? Maybe pay you a fee? Will I break any copyright law by quoting a moderate part of what you said?

    You needn’t ask for permission to quote me. This is covered under fair use.

    You will not break any copyright law in quoting a short excerpt. This is covered under fair use.

  23. Mark Howells-Mead said on

    I’m going to get a t-shirt printed up with “My Tweets are like the air”. Oh yes. An orange one, I think.

  24. Lukeither said on

    I’ve noticed more and more one word phrases being trademarked (can’t think of anything specific at the moment).

    Most trademarks are capitalized off someone else who didn’t have the resources/knowledge to trademark it anyway so like you stated there’s actually no originals just people with $$ and good sense to realize opportunity when they see/hear it.

    Valid points. Thanks for the information.

    Lukeither Willingham, Owner
    Geek Goddess
    Lukeither Multimedia & Design
    http://www.lukeithermd.com
    http://www.realbusinesswomennetwork.ning.com

  25. GoodManneredDude said on

    @Andy: Wouldn’t life just be a whole lot simpler if everything was in public domain? (Just me being rhetorical). Btw: I love your work!

  26. Arpan said on

    Selection pseudo element: Hey, I did not know that. I’m stealing that for a current project!

  27. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    The original point of tweetCC was not so much to handle directly issues of copyright, but to solve a problem I (and some others had).

    Excellent point, Malarkey. I remember!

    It’s not a problem most people will experience in their lives, as most people are not writing a book and do not have a publisher insisting they get written authorization for every quotation and screen shot. (That insistence on written authorization reveals the power big corporations wield in our world and the fear small companies rightfully harbor about getting crushed by a big corporation for doing “without permission” something they didn’t, in fact, need to ask permission to do. Abuse of corporate power is a subject we should discuss more often.)

  28. Chris said on

    That does raise the question… Can you infringe on a copyright via a tweet? I’d argue no under the same pretense, but I’m virtually certain the courts would disagree in that case.”

    I think it follows that if you cannot copyright a tweet, since it is too short by copyright law, then any copyrighted material that you extract a tweet for falls under “fair use.” Though in 140 characters or less it makes it difficult to acknowledge your source, and that may be unkind, yet still within fair use.

    Someone else mentioned above a question about copyrighting a body of tweets. That would also raise the question of copyright infringement if somebody tweeted a whole copyrighted book — 140 characters at a time. Individually they may fall under fair use, but collectively, is it infringement?

    Things sure do get complicated… =)

  29. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Individual tweets not, but what about entire Twitter feeds? A book is collection of uncopyrightable sentences, but a whole can be copyritghted. Isn’t Twitter feed analogous?

    That is a great question. You’d need to ask an IP attorney her opinion. It might not be a matter of law. It might take an actual “Twitter feed infringement” case going to court to truly start answering that question.

    Then again, what’s the use case? I can’t imagine a realistic situation where someone would quote another’s entire Twitter feed. Are you talking about importing someone’s Twitter feed to your website without their permission? Details, please.

    Not that I’ll be able to answer. (I’m no attorney.) Just curious what you’re thinking.

  30. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Selection pseudo element: Hey, I did not know that.

    Tim Murtaugh stumbled onto it and told me about it.

    It used to be part of CSS3:

    http://www.w3.org/TR/css3-selectors/#selection

    After all browsers except IE supported it, the W3C, in its wisdom, removed the element from the spec.

    Why did they do that? I don’t know.

    Browsers that support it will continue to support it. Pity it won’t be part of the official spec. Aaaar.

  31. Shiva said on

    Twitter is like Flikr. You put it up there, its free for all. Or is that free-for-all?

  32. Christian said on

    How short is short? The law doesn’t really seem to say.

  33. Dan Wineman said on

    I’m not sure I agree with the logic here. Yes, there are plenty of examples of works under 140 characters that are “short phrases” and therefore not protected by copyright. But not everything of that length is a short phrase. I’ve written tweets that are several sentences in length.

    If 140 characters were inescapably too short for copyright, most of the haiku ever written would be in the public domain. That’s clearly not the case, or else there would be no perennially-argued question of how to apply the Fair Use doctrine to a haiku.

  34. Michel said on

    @zeldman:

    You needn’t ask for permission to quote me. This is covered under fair use.

    You will not break any copyright law in quoting a short excerpt. This is covered under fair use.

    I know. That was my point! :)

    Fair use is to quote a part of what you said in your blog. Fair use it to quote one of your tweets… In both cases, short quote, fair use.

    (I am no sure about quoting 100 tweets, though…)

    Anyway — the discussion is interesting! Thanks for raising the question!

  35. Arlen said on

    I agree with you. However, what you and I say about things like this isn’t as important as what a judge says. Given the litigious nature of today’s society, and the Ashleigh Brilliant precedent, it was easy to understand the publisher’s insistence (I used PDD, for the curious).

    I look at it this way: If I set a table full of slightly used words out at my Twitter curbside, it’s an insignificant extra cost to add a sign saying “help yourself” just to clear up any lingering doubts about my intentions.

    Oh, and @jllk: a whole can only be copyrighted if there is some creative effort involved in the collection. Words and short phrases are not copyrightable; it’s the creative effort of stitching together enough of them in the right order to make a story or a novel that makes them copyrightable. In that light, I suspect “The 50 Best Tweets of Jeffrey Zeldman” is probably copyrightable, because of the creative effort involved in selecting them. An entire twitter feed, such as “The Tweets of Jeffrey Zeldman, volume X, January 2010″ is not.

  36. Bobby Jack said on

    IANAL. I am something of a linguist, though, and am interested in the issues raised here. But IANAL.

    Unfortunately, the PDF you link to doesn’t (as far as I can see) define ‘phrase’ in any concrete way. A ‘phrase’, according to one dictionary definition, is “a sequence of two or more words arranged in a grammatical construction and acting as a unit in a sentence”. From that, I would conclude that any multi-sentence or full-sentence tweets do not come under the ‘short phrase’ copyright exception.

    Of course, there is a very fuzzy line here between copyrightable and non-copyrightable, and it’s surely impossible to strictly define the boundary; cases can only be argued on an individual basis. But I’m very confident that at least some combinations of 140 characters are copyrightable :-)

  37. Tiffany Block said on

    Oh very nice, i think is positiv for twitter -user

  38. Andy Crouch said on

    Yes, with all respect and deference (IANAL either) I think Bobby Jack is probably right. A sentence, especially one that exhibits distinctive originality of authorship, is not a phrase. So if you want to copyright your tweets, tweet in complete (and distinctively original) sentences.

    Or poems. According to the anthology Modern American Poetry, William Carlos Williams claimed copyright for the poem commonly called “The Red Wheelbarrow” in 1962. It is only about 90 characters including line breaks. I don’t think it would be any less copyrightable if it were Tweeted.

  39. Andy Clarke said on

    “Abuse of corporate power is a subject we should discuss more often.”

    — Come the revolution comrade. (It will be next Tuesday at 2:00pm GMT.)

  40. Matthew said on

    That’s according to US law, though. I wonder what the situation is in the UK and other countries.

    It’s the same in the UK:

    Names, titles, short phrases and colours are not generally considered unique or substantial enough to be covered, but a creation, such as a logo, that combines these elements may be.

    copyrightservice.co.uk/copyright/
    p01_uk_copyright_law

    And, given that international copyright is covered by the Berne Convention, I imagine that it’s a common feature of copyright laws worldwide. Apart from anything else, they’d be difficult to enforce if it wasn’t.

  41. Glen Campbell said on

    Interesting that you mention “fair use” in your comment, since fair use only applies to copyrighted material, and not to stuff in the public domain. Fair Use effectively admits copyright infringtment but claims an allowable use.

  42. Greg said on

    The best resource I have found for copyright and twitter is Brock Shinen’s singular article devoted to this subject: TWITTERLOGICAL
    : The Misunderstandings of Ownership
    .

    The weird part about copyright law and Twitter is that the avatar you use (assuming you’ve created it) is much easier to copyright than the content you publish via Twitter.

  43. DL said on

    A concern of mine related to copyrighting is that there are agencies downloading our tweets en masse, searching and aggregating them for “sentiment” and selling that to advertisers and other agencies. So for example, when the iPad launched, a sentiment engine went out and searched for they keyword iPad and determined if the tweet was positive, negative, or mixed. That’s another way capitalist monetize social media and probably the most insidious because it’s done without our consent or likely knowledge. While copyrighting one’s tweets is arguable, Twitter should at the least allow us to creative commons what we Tweet as part of their service. TweetCC is attempting this, but the service and choices should be available in one’s profile. Twitter is not a walled garden so the content scrapers are hard at work. Facebook for all the privacy issues, at least lets you lock down what is public (and for the scrapers) v. not.

    Personally, I don’t want to have a Venture Capitalist to monetize my content and certainly don’t want my tweet about a product showing up in an Edelman presentation to a client.

    Probably most people don’t care, but I do.

  44. Michael Montgomery said on

    Are Tweets Copyright-Protected?
    “Most experts agree the response should not be an all-or-nothing answer, but rather ‘it depends.'”

    Twitterlogical: The Misunderstandings of Ownership
    “All Tweets Are Not Created Equal”
    “A Quick Read of Sections 101 and 102 of the Copyright Act Is Not Enough”

    Tweet Tweet: Can I Copyright That?
    “Still, certain written expressions, like haikus, are certainly worthy of copyright protection in spite of their diminutive length.”

  45. Greg said on

    Facebook for all the privacy issues, at least lets you lock down what is public (and for the scrapers) v. not. Personally, I don’t want to have a Venture Capitalist to monetize my content and certainly don’t want my tweet about a product showing up in an Edelman presentation to a client.

    Then you need to make your Twitter stream private. Otherwise the law is not on your side.

  46. Kenneth said on

    If tweets are out, being too short, I wonder about blog comments.

    Could a lengthy comment by copyrighted?

  47. n said on

    Interesting point.

    The terminology you use jars with me slightly though. As copyright isn’t a verb, you don’t apply copyright to something you’ve done; copyright is automatically granted when the conditions are met. You only need to apply for or state IP when it’s a trademark or patent; copyright signifying is purely an FYI.

    Not really important, but I felt the need to mention it anyway …

  48. n said on

    @Michel

    But fair use isn’t applied to all cases of using material covered under copyright law.

    You can quote Zeldman on your blog under fair use, but you couldn’t put that quote on a tshirt and sell it.

    That’s what we’re talking about here.

  49. n said on

    @ Greg

    “The weird part about copyright law and Twitter is that the avatar you use (assuming you’ve created it) is much easier to copyright than the content you publish via Twitter.”

    That’s only weird if you don;t know much about copyright :)

    You could scrawl a stickman on a napkin and you instantly retain the IP for that character. Visual copyright is different to text/code.

  50. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Glen Campbell said:

    Interesting that you mention “fair use” in your comment, since fair use only applies to copyrighted material

    My comment was in response to this Michel’s question,

    If I quote you in a blog post of mine…

    As messages sent via Twitter cannot be longer than 140 characters, they cannot be copyrighted. However original, witty, or profound they may be, nothing more than good manners protects your original expression of authorship.

    …should I ask for a written permission to quote you?

    My answer was, no, excerpts from my copyrighted blog may be published under “fair use.”

  51. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    IANAL

    Does that newsgroup still exist?

  52. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    You can quote Zeldman on your blog under fair use, but you couldn’t put that quote on a tshirt and sell it. That’s what we’re talking about here.

    But you can put my Tweet on a tee shirt and sell it.

    “Abuse of corporate power is a subject we should discuss more often.”

    — Come the revolution comrade.

    Speaking of which, how can we persuade the W3C to return the selection pseudo element to CSS3?

  53. Greg said on

    @n

    My point is that the avatar, which doesn’t weigh as heavily on the experience of using Twitter, has more protection than the content itself. It doesn’t matter how much or little you know about copyright law, it’s still weird.

  54. Greg said on

    Shiva said: Twitter is like Flikr. You put it up there, its free for all. Or is that free-for-all?

    It’s neither. Content on Flickr is absolutely covered under copyright. This statement couldn’t be further form the truth and just goes to show how little most people understand about the law and how it applies to content published on the Internet.

  55. Rich said on

    I will respectfully disagree, at least in the cases of most tweets. Some of this was mentioned, but a phrase is not the same as a clause, and most tweets are clauses, that is a subject and verb.

    I am going with the University of Chicago, which authored the Chicago Manual of Style:

    A phrase is a group of words which contains neither a subject nor a verb. (It may, however, contain a verbal form such as an infinitive, a participle, or a gerund.)

    A clause is a group of words containing at least a subject and a verb (the baby ate), and frequently it lets its hair down by containing some kind of a complement as well (the baby ate the goldfish). There are two kinds of clauses: independent and dependent.

  56. Jeannie said on

    And yet, I wonder if you could copywrite the contents of a twitter account. Say if someone is writing a twitter novel, as I know of several authors who are doing that.

  57. GoodManneredDude said on

    This copyright thing made me hungry. What are you guys having later on? @ Jeffrey: please feel free to remove this rather dull comment if you do not find this appropriate. If that happens to be the case I apologize and I will refrain from commenting in a similar way in the future (ha! in the future just made me think about Michael J. Fox and other cool stuff). Thanks again for posting that link about the selection. I’ll try to slip in a thank you note whenever i use that cool css3 feature. Am I wrong or is it thanks to people like Andy Clarke and numerous other brilliant designers/developers that browser makers are beginning to add css3 support?

  58. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Greg said:

    It doesn’t matter how much or little you know about copyright law, it’s still weird.

    Indeed. It all seems to be case law, and there is little consistency. You can trademark a squiggle, a name, and a handful of words. Illustrations and photos are protected by copyright; layouts are not.

    Steal six notes of music and you’re okay. Steal seven notes, and you’re in violation. That’s how copyright works in music; it certainly doesn’t work that way in writing.

  59. Byron Edwards said on

    Shiva said: “Twitter is like Flikr [sic]. You put it up there, its free for all.”

    Shiva, that’s not even close to being correct.

  60. Gregory Alan Elliott said on

    COPYRIGHT THIS. http://bit.ly/bca1ZW
    P.S. “Honesty is the best poetry.” as paint on canvas, graffiti on walls, or as a snow and grass installation art piece… transfers copyright of the phrase to me as the artist.

  61. Ingo Chao said on

    “.. the W3C, in its wisdom, removed the element from the spec. Why did they do that? I don’t know.”
    http://markmail.org/message/t25g33nsxex2o3od
    The last paragraph in fantasai’s answer explains it.

  62. heather gold said on

    Hmmm, if this is true then does Steven Wright know that he doesn’t own any of his act?

    Comics certainly have a social code of ownership. Some comics do take stuff. And then they lose the respect and, ideally, work that would come from other comics.

    Tweets aren’t any shorter than many jokes and it seems odd to think that you cant own a joke you wrote.

  63. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    http://markmail.org/message/t25g33nsxex2o3od
    The last paragraph in fantasai’s answer explains it.

    Thanks!

  64. Alan Houser said on

    GREAT discussion here folks! Some people are passionate, and others are just stupid. You know who you are. CHEERS!

  65. fair use != commerical use said on

    “But you can put my Tweet on a tee shirt and sell it.”

    I don’t think that is correct. Selling copyrighted material is not considered fair use. Please have your IP lawywer confirm.

  66. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Hmmm, if this is true then does Steven Wright know that he doesn’t own any of his act?

    Hillman Curtis “owns” his layouts even though layouts can’t be copyrighted under current US copyright law (because the law is an ass when it comes to graphic design).

    Steven Wright’s routines, I’m sure, are copyrighted.

    I’m no lawyer but Steven Wright’s individual jokes probably fall under the same category as haikus and other short poems, all of which can be copyrighted.

    Whether Tweets will eventually be accorded the same legal respect probably depends on how Twitter is eventually defined (is it a utility? a service? or a website?) in future legal cases. It will also depend on how good the lawyers are, the interpretation of the judge, the emotions and thinking of the jury, and whether one gives more weight to the one out of a thousand Tweets that has artistic value, or to the 999 Tweets that read like this one: http://twitter.com/DQB32/statuses/9602303510 .

    #Rt 3 words you say after sex . . . “don’t call me”

    Find me the judge who’s going to view that as authorial content worthy of copyright protection.

  67. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I don’t think that is correct. Selling copyrighted material is not considered fair use.

    Putting your Tweet on a tee shirt isn’t “fair use,” because “fair use” applies to copyrighted material, and your Tweet isn’t copyrighted. Kindly see the title of this post, and the content of this post, and the content of many of the comments on this post.

  68. SpencerFromLegal said on

    i have to agree with Rich. A phrase is an incomplete thought. according to the logic of the original post, short poems (and some of them are really really short) would not be able to have the protection of copyright laws. I have a feeling that this will have to be tested in court. Your arguments are valid, but not bulletproof by any means. Its all kind of moot anyway given the license you grant Twitter in their Terms of Service… “By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed) [THIS MEANS MOVIES, BOOKS, PERFORMANCE ART]. . . You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use. . . Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you. . .”

  69. SpencerFromLegal said on

    While technically, you own the the copyright to a tweet (if, in fact it can be protected.. i think it may), you basically gave a hugely exhaustive license to the world to use it. so, although you are still free to exploit the tweet financially, so is the rest of the world.

  70. Mike Dickison said on

    If tweets are too short to copyright, but one wanted to keep one’s deathless wit off a T-shirt, just post monthly summaries of your Twitter feed as single blog posts. Even better, edit out the junk each month. Those “tweet-dumps” are certainly copyrighted, so quoting any part of them (beyond fair use) would be infringement. Including on T-shirts.

    Archiving tweets is probably a good idea anyway, as they’re pretty ephemeral. And Twitter will go belly-up one day, as will we all.

  71. @techguerilla said on

    A couple of thoughts here, and since I’m not about to do the research on it we’ll call them theoretical questions for now :)

    Part of the question revolves around a tweet being viewed as a singular, standalone entity. But whether that would be the prevailing view in a courtroom remains to be seen. If I tweet a longer statement and use 5 tweets to do it, is each tweet still an individual entity?

    Another portion at play here is ownership. Depending upon the publishing platform in question you may or may not have any ownership rights in the first place. Theoretically (barring user agreements to the contrary) all of those tweets taking place could be considered portions of a whole. With the “whole” in this case being a collective set of data owned by Twitter, not you. Similar to how if you send an email via your workplace email the corporation actually owns your email, not you.

    Thoughts?

  72. jt said on

    how to copyright a tweet: create a document with all your tweets on it. there, it’s been copyrighted.

    the real issue is enforcing said copyright.

  73. Andy Crouch said on

    Here’s what frustrates me about this post. Its headline is a bold, blanket statement. “You cannot copyright a Tweet.” A statement which is almost certainly not true, but spreads far and wide because of its influential and respected source.

    Then in comment #66 the author of that bold headline grants what is almost certainly true: the copyright status of any given Tweet would have to be litigated to be assured. But, as observed, “haikus and other short poems” undoubtedly have copyright protection. There is no obvious reason a haiku would not have copyright protection just because it was published on Twitter, especially given that Twitter’s TOS clearly envisions that some “Content” will not be in the public domain and therefore has to be licensed to Twitter.

    So the headline of this post is wrong. And the body of the post is wrong (especially in its cavalier dismissal of Twitter’s TOS, which were, probably, drafted by someone who IAL and knows copyright law, unlike the highly intelligent and aesthetically brilliant proprietor of this blog). But it has fostered a very interesting conversation! Little of this would have come from a post more modestly and correctly titled, “You cannot copyright a short phrase.” Maybe it was worth it after all?

  74. Gdub said on

    I think the most irritating things is when bozo webcocks steal your originally created joke and tweet it as their own. I recently had @OwlCity, some sort of angsty/douchey tween girl band guy steal one of my more popular toots.

    For those of us that use Twitter as an exercise in creative joke writing, the idea that anyone can steal our content with no consequence or attribution is a bit upsetting.

  75. lukethelibrarian said on

    intellectual property lawyer william bonk has a rather different and more nuanced view.

  76. Brett Glass said on

    Sorry, but there’s case law that says otherwise. Ashleigh Brilliant has successfully enforced copyrights on very short aphorisms.

  77. Nick Douglas said on

    Zeldman, it took me fifteen seconds to prove you wrong.

    Here’s a Stanford Law professor’s explanation of why short phrases can indeed by copyrighted, even individually, in a way that would clearly cover Twitter updates.

  78. Krystyn said on

    Nevermind copyright… if you’re so lame that you can’t come up with 140 original characters? You suck and deserve to reside in that special place in Internet hell with people who steal your company’s web design and argue “We’re not in the same industry, so it doesn’t matter.”*

    When I heard David Pogue “wrote” a book using his follower’s tweets**, I figured it was only a matter of time before someone “writes” a book without involving the actual authors at all. Is copyright an issue when that happens? Collectively, does that fall under copyright law?

    * Yes, someone *actually* used that argument after ripping us off.
    ** Seriously… who the hell wants to pay $20 for a book of other people’s tweets?

  79. David said on

    The general public already has a bad understanding of copyright. This post does not help. There are people on twitter hailing this post as though it’s a legal decision. This post does not have legal weight. You don’t get to decide that a tweet is the same as a “short phrase.” Seriously disappointed to see this post.

  80. David said on

    “Seriously disappointed to see this post.”

    Rather I should say that I’m disappointed by the response to this post as a voice of authority. I’m all for the post as food for thought an catalyst for discussion.

  81. Nick Douglas said on

    Krystyn, that’s horrible slander against Pogue’s book!

    It’s only ten dollars!

  82. DN said on

    Dan Wineman’s comment is excellent, which I don’t think has been said, though reflected in subsequent remarks. A short work is separable from a short phrase. Moreover, we run into issues of broadcast/publication vs. conversation, and coverage/audience. I’m nothing like an attorney, but common sense would dictate that all of these things would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. And, where money is concerned, whether the business model depends on mining the feeds of others.

  83. DL Byron said on

    @greg,

    the law is not my concern here as I do believe I can copyright a Tweet, my concern is the scrapers selling our content and Twitter should absolutely allows us to say, “no” to that because it’s copyrightable.

  84. Maria Korolov said on

    By default in the US, and most other countries, you own the copyright to any creative work you produce, whether or not you register it. And while an individual Tweet may — or may not — be too short to qualify, the complete body of someone’s work is certainly not.

    If someone were to hijack your Twitter feed, pretending to be you and taking credit for all of your work — not just retweeting individual tweets — then I believe this would be copyright infringement.

    Also keep in mind that a work does not have to be published in order to be copyrighted. If you write a novel, then that novel is your intellectual property — whether or not you get it printed, or post it on a Web site, or Twitter it 140 characters at a time.

    — Maria

  85. M. Edward (Ed) Borasky said on

    I have some more bad news for your readers. Not only can you not copyright a tweet, but you can’t enforce a “delete” either. If you tweet something, then delete it, the Twitter API sends a “delete” message to all users monitoring the Twitter feed. But there is no way they can require the reader to actually delete the tweet! It’s strictly an “honor” system.

    They could, however, probably sue the huevos off of anyone who tried to *sell* deleted tweets. ;-)

  86. Stephen Paul Weber said on

    1) Something being uncopyrightable (such as a collection of data) is different from it being in the Public Domain (expired copyright)
    2) This legal opinion may only be valid in the United States of America
    3) This seems reasonable, but as the phrasing is ambiguous (“short phrases”) a judge may disagree with you :)

  87. Ron Martinez said on

    I’m afraid Nick Douglas is correct. Assuming that tweets are public domain based upon their being “phrases” is incorrect, Mr. Z. Short works are copyrightable.

    This all speaks to the larger, emerging question of digital property rights. If user information (everything you make or do online, or information about you stored online) is the currency of the Internet, where are the banks? And where is your bank account? Or your interest on that account?

    Wheels are turning on this.

  88. Modern Hacker said on

    “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” – Hemingway’s infamous six-word short story. Sorry but his article is off the mark. By anyone’s definition, 140 characters is enough for much more expression than just a “short phrase”.

  89. Justin said on

    This is an overly simplistic view of copyright law and makes the dangerous, baseless assumption that all tweets, because they are short, will be viewed as unprotectable by a judge.

    Copyright law is never, ever that black and white and you shouldn’t tell people it is (what’s more, what about the totality of a person’s Twitter stream? That’s not short. I have over 5,000 tweets — are you saying I have no right to protect that original body of content?)

    Here’s a much more complete and nuanced view as to when a short phrase may or may not be protected at the Standford Law Center:

    http://bit.ly/cSIMSY

  90. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Zeldman, it took me fifteen seconds to prove you wrong.

    You haven’t proved me wrong. You’ve proved that an author can go to court to protect the originality of a distinctive short phrase. I made the same point in one of my comments. I wasn’t disputing that some writing is short and original, or that some short, original writing can be protected.

    I was disputing the baseless assertion, often heard in this community, that a person’s Tweets are copyrighted by default.

    Nowhere has it been established that “#Rt 3 words you say after sex . . . ‘don’t call me’” (i.e. the average Tweet) is copyrighted by default. The author you quote certainly doesn’t make the case that such phrases have value and qualify for protection.

    Literary works are protected by default, but short phrases aren’t considered literary works except in special circumstances (i.e. in the case of haiku, or epigrams abstracted from a larger work, or when the author of a pungently distinctive phrase goes to court and wins).

    I suppose I could have said “Most Tweets Aren’t Copyrighted and You’d Have a Tough Time Copyrighting One,” but I go for the gusto.

  91. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Twitter’s TOS clearly envisions that some “Content” will not be in the public domain and therefore has to be licensed to Twitter.

    Except when Twitter allows any user to retweet any other user’s tweet, and publish it on any website via the Twitter API or any of a handful of freely available widgets.

    Twitter isn’t a group of legal authorities, it’s a group of smart web developers with a cool startup company, figuring it out as they roll along.

  92. Krystyn said on

    Nick, dunno if that was a tongue in cheek response, but I apologize for the inaccuracy regardless. I was going off memory of an article a friend wrote while the book was in production.

    I just checked and it said “..he’ll certainly be charging at least $19.95 for the book.” My bad.

  93. iPad Links: Thursday, February 25, 2010 « Mike Cane's iPad Test said on

    [...] iBookstore and the Format of eBooks You cannot copyright a Tweet How Ning made me a chump and how you can avoid it RapidShare Ordered To Proactively Filter Book [...]

  94. scott said on

    “The weird part about copyright law and Twitter is that the avatar you use (assuming you’ve created it) is much easier to copyright than the content you publish via Twitter.”

    makes a lot of sense to me. a symbol can explain way more than 140 characters could. a picture can sometimes be worth more than 1000 words, so there you go.

  95. Jeff L said on

    Maybe I missed it somewhere, but what is the definition of a “short phrase?” Where does it state that it’s 140 characters? I did not see a definition in the PDF?

  96. Hacksaw said on

    Mr. Zeldman, Twitter is a company which likely knows how to employ lawyers. It’s a popular thing to do. Said lawyers probably wrote their terms of service. This is also a popular thing to do.

    Consider joining the popularity. Spend $100 on a copyright lawyer, and ask them to render an opinion of whether tweets are copyrightable.

    IANAL, but I bet there are a large class of Tweets that would pass muster.

  97. Kilian said on

    If you write a book and I start tweeting it 140 characters by 140 characters is that copyright infringement?

    If yes, then what if I start writing a book in pieces of 140 character tweets and I then decide to publish the whole of them as a book later on. Are the tweets then protected by copyright as much as the book would be?

  98. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Spend $100 on a copyright lawyer, and ask them to render an opinion of whether tweets are copyrightable.

    Actually, we spent considerably more than that consulting an accomplished IP attorney on this subject. His legal opinion formed the basis for my post.

    Might a different IP attorney come to a different conclusion? Certainly.

    It’s been an interesting conversation, with reasonable and compelling arguments on both sides.

    Thanks to some of you, my opinion on the subject is now less strident, or at least a more nuanced, than it was when I wrote this post nearly fifteen hours ago. I stand by my post but the subject is inconclusive (like most law).

    Thanks, everyone!

  99. John Lascurettes said on

    After all browsers except IE supported it, the W3C, in its wisdom, removed the element from the spec.

    That’s a shame. To the aware designer, that could be a useful tool for maintaining usable and accessible highlighting colors. I can’t tell you how many times my choice of default highlight is nearly indistinguishable from some web design’s background color.

    From the other source material, it sounds as though the W3C would consider putting it again later; but seeing as we’ve been waiting 10 years on CSS3 to be finalized, I would anticipate it the same way I’d anticipate California sinking into the Pacific Ocean.

  100. Natalie Jost said on

    I was all up in arms about this for about five minutes, not because I say anything that cool, but because I don’t care for it to be splattered all around other various websites without my knowing or giving permission for it. But apparently I did.

    SpencerFromLegal has a good point. We all “signed” an agreement with Twitter to do XYZ with our tweets, so whether they are copyrightable is moot. We’re all allowing Twitter to do whatever their current terms of service say they can, including give them away to anyone who knows how to hook into the API.

    My question now is, does this hold true with private tweets? Can (and does) Twitter allow the use of private tweets anywhere else? At least if my tweets were private, I’d know any republishing being done is by a real person (follower), which I’m totally cool with.

  101. Berserk said on

    Considering the discussion re: haikus, Jonathan Schwartz resignation tweet is quite interesting:

    Today’s my last day at Sun. I’ll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku. Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/CEO no more

    Can one phrase consist of three sentences and a haiku?

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  103. kelly said on

    Good info! I add a few more info here… For example if a person tweets
    RT Your tweet
    or
    RT @-yourname Your tweet

    you can STILL take some form of action. Here’s how…
    Write to the tweeple who did not tweet yr name correctly. And ask them to include your name correctly within 24 hours. Failing which, you can make a report to Twitter. The thing is – it’s now all up to Twitter management to help put tweets back to the way they’re meant to be.

  104. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    it sounds as though the W3C would consider putting it again later;

    Right, they are.

    but seeing as we’ve been waiting 10 years on CSS3 to be finalized, I would anticipate it the same way I’d anticipate California sinking into the Pacific Ocean.

    Right you are! That’s the unholy tragedy of it.

  105. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Can one phrase consist of three sentences and a haiku?

    Excellent point! So maybe Circular 34 from the US Copyright Office doesn’t perfectly map to a Tweet, and this question will have to be answered in the courts. Until it is, some of us will guess that Tweets generally aren’t copyrightable and others of us will guess the opposite.

  106. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    If tweets are too short to copyright, but one wanted to keep one’s deathless wit off a T-shirt, just post monthly summaries of your Twitter feed as single blog posts. Even better, edit out the junk each month. Those “tweet-dumps” are certainly copyrighted, so quoting any part of them (beyond fair use) would be infringement. Including on T-shirts.

    Archiving tweets is probably a good idea anyway, as they’re pretty ephemeral. And Twitter will go belly-up one day, as will we all.

    Excellent points, Mike Dickison.

    Conversely, if one wants to allow one’s Tweets to appear on a shirt, one can opt in. (All the companies I know of that allow you to put your favorite Tweet on a t-shirt will only proceed if the author of the Tweet grants approval.)

  107. Cecil said on

    Copyright twitter?
    Never! Says Jeffrey Zeldman.
    We all disagree.

    Copyright ©2010 by me.

    The haiku is 62 characters, including punctuation.

  108. Berserk said on

    One point that have been mentioned implicitly in this discussion is threshold of originality. Now, I’m not from the US, but here in Sweden the equivalent concept is the main rule that determines the copyrightability of a work, and not the length (or shortness) of it. (Of course, originality is easier to achieve on a longer work than on a short.)

    Based on that, I would guess that Schwartz’s haiku-tweet would be automatically copyrighted (or very possible for his legal representation to enforce copyright on, should he wish it), while your example tweet hopefully would not..

    But IANAL and this is just a WAG and I don’t tweet so I don’t care :).

    (But if I did I would do as you and assume that anyone might do anything with whatever I twat/tweeted.)

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  110. Richard Allen said on

    I just wrote a blog post debunking this assertion that “you cannot copyright a tweet.” Not only does this blog post misstate copyright law, it also misstates trademark law. Hopefully this will help:

    http://www.95years.com/2010/02/26/can-you-copyright-your-tweets/

  111. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Dear Richard Allen:

    Had you read the comments here, you wouldn’t have had to write your blog post. Although it is a nice post, and well-written.

    You are an attorney and I am not, but your post, like the very similar comments it echoes here, does not prove that Tweets *are* copyrighted or *can be* copyrighted. It only proves that neither you nor I can make blanket assertions with as high a degree of confidence as my headline implies.

    Some short statements can be copyrighted. I said so in my post and in comments and you say so (with greater authority) in your post.

    Such copyrights *might* apply to certain statements published via Twitter. I agree with you.

    Are all Tweets copyrighted upon publication? No one has proved anything like that. As I’ve said a few times here now, I think it will only be proven in case law.

  112. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I believe everything has now been said that needed to be said. Thanks, everyone, for a great discussion. I feel smarter than I was 36 hours ago. Peace.

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