Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Who Owns Your Ideas on a Shared Forum?

“Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?” asks user The_Quiet_Earth on the popular internet forum Reddit. The question is met with many enthusiastic responses, including the beginnings of a story exploring this premise by user Prufrock451, who in real life is James Erwin -a published author, and a two time Jeopardy winner.

His story is well received, and he is encouraged by others in the discussion to create a new “subreddit” where he can continue to post updates, and fans can post related content. Shortly after these posts gain prominence on Reddit, Madhouse Entertainment's Adam Kolbrenner contacts the author about developing the story into a screenplay, and shortly thereafter, a deal is signed giving Warner Brothers the screen rights to the project.

As a Reddit user (or Redditor), success stories like this are life-affirming; As someone studying PR, this sounds like one of Tara Hunt’s anecdotes illustrating how social media revolutionizes the way entities interact with their publics to create content. In this case, however, there is a (potential) catch -Reddit’s user agreement gives it a technical legal claim to user content:

"you agree that by posting messages, uploading files, inputting data, or engaging in any other form of communication with or through the Website, you grant us a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, enhance, transmit, distribute, publicly perform, display, or sublicense any such communication in any medium (now in existence or hereinafterdeveloped) and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so."

According to HollywoodReporter.com, Reddit’s copyright agent has stated that a strict interpretation of this could allow the site to sell the screen rights to this story to a competing studio.

Such verbiage is not uncommon, and is present in user agreements for most social media applications. While many casual users have no problem conceding this issue in exchange for free access, professionals looking for a platform to communicate and collaborate with their audiences may find themselves in an uncertain position:

What does it mean to PR practitioners if research, ideas, and other content we communicate within online communities can be reused, edited, or sold to a licensee of the application? How would it reflect on us, and our relationship with our audiences, if this happens?

Although Reddit, whose representatives have stated they’re revamping their user agreement, has taken no such actions, James Erwin has since stopped using the social media site as a platform to discuss his creation. As dispiriting as that may seem to enthusiastic social media proponents, given the potential risks, can we blame him?

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