After Instagram announced changes to its terms and conditions, the web community is again questioning the value of their content.
The outrage over Instagram’s announcement that it is changing its terms and conditions has turned the spotlight on the relationship between websites and users who upload content, whether it is photos, video, blogs or even games. “It is the thorny problem of user-generated content – what rights users have and what rights the online platform has,” says Jaz Purewal, digital media lawyer at Osborne Clarke.
There is no industry standard practice, says Purewal, but sites typically take one of two approaches. “Either they say you get to keep your content, but we get the right to use it in various ways; or they say if you upload it to us we own it, but we give you some rights over how you can still use it. Either approach takes a certain amount of control away from the user – although in return they get their content hosted online.”
How will I know my rights?
They will be outlined in the terms and conditions you sign up to when you register with a site and you should be notified of any changes – although often websites do this on-site, rather than by emailing individual users. YouTube’s t&cs state that it reserves the right to make changes and advises “therefore you must look at the terms regularly to check for such changes”.
Initially, you will have to agree to a site’s terms before you can upload content, but if a change is made you may be told that you will have to close your account if you do not agree to it.
No one actually reads the t&cs do they?
A lot of people don’t seem to. When Gamestation changed its terms one April Fool’s day to tell customers that it was reserving the right to claim their souls, none of the 7,500 people who used the site that day seemed to notice. A survey of UK consumers suggested just 7% read online terms and conditions before they signed up for products and services, and other research has put it even lower.
Purewal says consumers could be forgiven for not trawling through pages and pages of small print: “They are historically designed more for lawyers than consumers, so even if consumers do read them all, they are relatively unlikely to understand what rights they are giving away and what rights they are getting back”. However, he says companies are putting more effort into readable t&cs.
So what exactly am I giving away and getting back?
As noted, it varies from site to site, and going through every site is too big a job even for guardian.co.uk/money. However, here are some key lines from the small print on some of the most popular sites – if you are already using them, you are subject to these terms.
YouTube: You retain all of your ownership rights to and videos you upload, but when you use the site you grant a limited licence to YouTube and other users. That licence is a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable licence (with right to sub-licence) to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform that Content in connection with the provision of the Service and otherwise in connection with the provision of the Service and YouTube’s business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels”.
The licence extends to YouTube’s affiliates. When you leave YouTube it retains the right to keep copies of your content on its servers.
Twitter: You retain your rights to any content you post on Twitter, but you grant the website a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free licence (with the right to sublicense) “to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your content. The licence allows Twitter to make 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”.
It adds: “Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter, may be made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available”.
Facebook: You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. The t&cs also state: “We do not give your content or information to advertisers without your consent.”
However, when you use Facebook you give it the right to use information “in connection with the services and features we provide to you and other users like your friends, our partners, the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games, applications, and websites you use”.
Instagram – The small print is set to change on 16 January 2013. The site has committed to reviewing the new terms which currently say that while you still own your content, you grant Instagram “a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service”. The t&cs add: “Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”
Flickr: Flickr is owned by Yahoo! and is covered by the same terms as other Yahoo! services. When you upload a photo you retain ownership, but grant the company a licence to use it.
The small print says: “You grant Yahoo! a world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, modify, adapt and publish such Content on the Services solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting the specific Yahoo! Group to which such Content was submitted, or, in the case of photos or graphics, solely for the purpose for which such photo or graphic was submitted to the Services.”
“Every year now brings examples of sites and online businesses facing difficulties about how to communicate effectively what they want to do with a user’s content or data – even if they are very good reasons for making a change to their service,” says Purewal. “A combination of listening to consumers, and working to avoid regulation and litigation, should help reduce these issues in the future – but it’s still a learning process for everyone”.