Murphy's Law: Licensing Your Thoughts, 140 Characters at a Time


If you're a fan of open source, you're a fan of licensing. Okay, maybe not a fan. But you still have to respect the legal power of the documents attached to open-source software and projects, which describe for you the exact ways you can and cannot use, modify, and pass-along the licensed material. While a newcomer to the open source might see these licenses as restrictive entities prohibiting commercial exploitation of a body of work, they're the lifeblood of those who spend untold hours poring over the bits and bytes of a dream. Not as a means of financial extortion for companies that want to use the software, rather, these licensing documents ensure that the spirit of open source carries on regardless of a project's potential iterations.

I sometimes wish I could apply a license to everything I do on the Internet. And perhaps you will too, once you realize that you're a content creator -- just like me, anyone who writes for this site, and any of the estimated 17 million (and counting) microbloggers on the popular Twitter service. As of yesterday, Twitter has joined forces with Threadless . The t-shirt retailer and community hub is now the centerpiece in a massive effort to transform your witty public Tweets into customized, cash-generating clothing. But this partnership respects the spirit of licensing, even though the actual legal rights you hold as a Twitter user are still open for debate.

Twitter's terms of service specify that anything you post to the site is yours to keep. The company claims no rights over any of your content and you're free to remove your work at any time by privatizing your Tweets or deleting your account. End of story, right?

Not really.

If you choose to wade into the public Twitter waters with everyone else, then your work can be subject to submission to Threadless -- this isn't outright stated in the Twitter ToS, although it's a de-facto technique that's been created as a result of the new partnership. Anyone can submit any public Tweet on the service to Threadless. But here's the catch. Even though your Tweet is may or may not be copyrightable on its face value, Threadless is taking the time and effort to notify every single Twitter user whose witty saying is nominated for potential t-shirt superstardom. It's a kind of polite licensing -- although you posted your message to a public entity and, in theory, could have no copyright on a reinterpretation of your words, Threadless is treating you as if you slapped a big ol' All Rights Reserved on your idea.

From there, a Twitter user has the option to approve all nominated Tweets, piecemeal together two separate lists of approved and denied tweets, or deny Threadless entirely. If a Twitter user's message wins out and gets printed on a shirt, said person receives $360 in cash and a $140 gift certificate to Threadless. The Twitter bounty hunter, or original submitter of the Tweet, gets $100 cash and a $40 gift certificate.

Now, the thorny part. What happens if a user wants to exert some kind of creative control over his or her popularized Tweet? Suppose everyone likes a message I create: " Nathan Edwards is a scruffy nerf herder." I tell Threadless that they can print my novel idea onto a shirt and they toss me a small bit of cash. Suppose that shirt takes off on Threadless' site and it gets passed around the Internet like the video of that fat kid dancing to the Swedish song. Suddenly, dollar signs go off in my eyes, and I begin to think about all the ways I can fill up Scrooge McMurphy's vault by drafting up a Web site and selling my own merchandise.

It's a far-fetched example, yes, but the crux of Twitter's Terms of Service remain clear: you hold the rights to your work. As such, you should be able to spin your creations as you please, competing with the very entity that will likely send your message viral to begin with. And even if you have to enter into an additional licensing agreement with Threadless for your Tweet to be printed, you should also be able to change the terms of your license at a whim -- transforming the informal "commercial" condition into a more restrictive entity whenever and however you want. But your ability to do so is unclear in regards to Twitter's ToS. And I don't see many users making use of a solution like tweetCC , a dubious solution at best. How can one actually protect against the remixing or tweaking of a Tweet?

Still, we should all be happy that Twitter and Threadless are at least doing something to protect the integrity of your words. Although it very well might turn into a battleground at some point, the service is currently too new to suffer the legal filings of a Twitter user scorned. What's yours to Tweet is yours to keep, but what happens to the thousands of people who have passed your message along to thousands of their friends? What's to stop one of them from beating you to the Threadless punch with a spin-off (or direct copy) of your funny idea? That's the bigger problem with this new, retail-oriented Twitterverse... and all the licenses in the world aren't going to win you the day when Threadless has no way of identifying the original owner of an idea. Try figuring that one out in 140 characters or less.

Steal David Murphy's hilarious remarks for your own fashionable use by following him on Twitter . He won't sue you. Trust me.

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