Wait, so what do you still own?

by Eszter Hargittai on February 6, 2014

Twitter has announced a data grants program, which sounds potentially exciting as it’s nice when academics can gain access to resources (in this case, if I’m reading it correctly, that means data).

Before proceeding to the application form, however, you have to accept their “Data Grant Submission Agreement v1.0”. That’s not something academics often have to do when applying for grants, but I appreciate that Twitter may need to cover some ground in this domain. This is where things get confusing quickly though, at least to this scholar with no legal background. I quote to you what I found the most intriguing (not in a good way):

You or the owner of the Content still own the copyright in the Content, but by submitting Content to Twitter, you are granting Twitter an unconditional, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully paid-up, fully transferable, perpetual and worldwide license to evaluate, use, copy, perform, display, publish, transmit, or create derivative works of the Content, or to authorize third parties to evaluate, use, copy, perform, display, publish, transmit, or create derivative works of the Content in any format and on any platform, either now known or hereinafter invented. Twitter will own any derivative works it (or its authorized third parties) creates from the Content. You hereby waive all copyright, trademark, trade secret, patent and other intellectual property right claims you may have against Twitter for evaluating, using, copying, performing, displaying, publishing, transmitting, or creating derivative works of the Content.

Just to clarify, all applicants have to agree to this, not just the recipients of their grants.

In comparison, most granting agencies (these tend to be either governmental or nonprofit although there are companies as well) seem to request no such thing. In fact, as a reviewer, you are usually asked to agree to keep the material you receive confidential. The granting agencies rarely make public the submissions. Even if they did, in many cases, the ideas concern data not yet collected so even if someone were to run with your ideas, they may not yet have the resources to pull off the necessary data collection.

In contrast, here you are to give Twitter license to publicize your ideas including to folks who may then have the precise data set with which they can pursue your ideas. That may not be Twitter’s intent, but it is legally covered to do so.

This seems rather problematic to me and am very curious to hear how other people read the agreement, especially from an academic researcher’s perspective, but other perspectives welcomed as well. Also, legally speaking, can anyone help me understand what rights the owner of Content has in this scenario that are different from what Twitter can do with said Content? The licensing seems so expansive, I don’t understand what the original owner is left with. Is the issue that at least you still have the right to work on your ideas without Twitter’s permission?

{ 70 comments }

1

Plume 02.06.14 at 10:06 pm

I’m not a lawyer, either, but did take some classes in legalities for my Communication degree. This strikes me as waaaay too open-ended, especially the part about Third Parties. If I understand it correctly, it could mean your work would be subject to sale, in perpetuity, to as yet unknown, possibly not even created yet, corporations, which can then do as they please with your work.

The Facebook model, basically. No corporation is going to make billions in stock sales without the potential for massive profits in the future, and sales of personal information is one major lure. In this case, actual content production. In the case of Facebook, personal buying habits, etc. Twitter may be angling for both.

2

TM 02.06.14 at 10:10 pm

“by submitting Content to Twitter”

What kind of content does this refer to?

3

Eszter Hargittai 02.06.14 at 10:15 pm

Uhm, did either of you click through to the link?

It looks like my post wasn’t clear enough: The Content refers to academic researchers submitting applications to Twitter’s new data grant program. The Content is the material you include in your application about your research project.

4

William Berry 02.06.14 at 10:44 pm

If I have this worked out right, Twitter actually has no “Data Grants Program”.

Unless academic researchers are dumber than I think they are.

5

Plume 02.06.14 at 11:16 pm

I was thinking content as the research itself. Sorry. Still, might not the proposal itself be too much to offer anyone, forever more? Without your knowledge or future consent? With all attendant supporting data, etc.

6

Plume 02.06.14 at 11:17 pm

At least as offered on the app.

7

DaveL 02.07.14 at 1:17 am

This is not how any government grant I’ve heard of works, even if the resulting work becomes government property. This is not how submitting an inquiry letter (and sample chapters) works for publishers. This is not how submitting music to potential publishers works. I don’t think this is even how “submit your recipe” contests work.

This is how “Heh, heh, let’s see what we can steal from slip by these naive folks” works, though.

8

Straightwood 02.07.14 at 1:21 am

In short: “All your content are belong to Twitter.”

This dominance of big data owners over individual contributors is what Jaron Lanier is arguing against in “Who Owns the Future.”

9

SamChevre 02.07.14 at 1:27 am

Not a lawyer; not an academic; but it looks to me as if it duplicates the open-source licenses like the GPL. You can use it; you can authorize anyone else to use it; Twitter can also use it and authorize others to do so.

10

Bloix 02.07.14 at 1:50 am

I don’t belong to Twitter and don’t intend to join (I am allergic to social media) so I can’t click through.

But when you ask: “Is the issue that at least you still have the right to work on your ideas without Twitter’s permission?”

That I can answer – the answer is yes. You can do whatever you want with the Content – work on it, publish it, and license, transfer, etc. it to third parties without Twitter’s permission. That’s the meaning of “non-exclusive” in the second line. The effect is that Twitter’s rights are co-extensive with yours.

11

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 1:58 am

I don’t think the intention is necessarily to steal the proposals. I’d be very surprised if Twitter didn’t give out some of these grants—it’s not terribly costly to them and Twitter-based research has been great press/publicity.
The problem here is more general: This is the exact legal language that we’ve come to expect from all social media services at all opportunities. The perpetual, unrestricted, irrevocable(!) license is show they handle all content. I have now seen this for reference managers (Paperlight), free hospitality exchange (couchsurfing.org) etc. So they just applied their generic MO to academic grants, too.
While it may be possible to discourage Twitter on this particular issue, I’m not terribly optimistic that there is enough political will/pressure available in the US to discourage such practices. At least for personal data, the EU is hoping to ban such practices even for data stored outside of the EU as long as a firm wants to operate in the EU, so that may be some reason for optimism.

12

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 2:05 am

@Sam – nope this is _nothing_ like the GPL license. One of the main points of GPL is that you cannot take a work derivative of a GPL licensed work and license it via a non-free license (that’s similar to the “Share-Alike” provision in most Creative Common’s licenses). Twitter very much reserves the right to do just that.

13

david 02.07.14 at 2:07 am

Translation: we don’t want to have to keep records of who owns what in our systems

14

Chaz 02.07.14 at 3:07 am

@Sam and Adam, it’s somewhat like a permissive free software license, like the Apache license. Also similar to a copyright license agreement, which is a contentious topic in free software communities. Actually I think this literally is a copyright license agreement.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you send a letter (or application, document, etc.) to someone and you don’t write “Copyright X, all rights reserved” or specify licensing terms in your letter, then you are giving them unlimited permission to use it–de facto waiving copyright over it–anyway, so the effect would be the same. Except in that case, maybe the recipient couldn’t claim rights over it with respect to third parties (I’m not sure about this part), whereas the Twitter agreement means they ca.

15

mark 02.07.14 at 3:15 am

The researcher still owns everything. However, if they suspect twitter is setting ad prices based on that clever algorithm outlined in their proposal, they don’t get to sue for millions.

From Twitter’s lawyers point of view, I’m sure the intent is to avoid frivolous lawsuits, or any potential liability if one of their employees does ‘independently’ come up with the same idea. It’s about the same level of protection, and respect, that someone posting fan fiction on a gaming company’s website would get.

16

JanieM 02.07.14 at 3:27 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you send a letter (or application, document, etc.) to someone and you don’t write “Copyright X, all rights reserved” or specify licensing terms in your letter, then you are giving them unlimited permission to use it–de facto waiving copyright over it–anyway, so the effect would be the same.

IANAL, but this isn’t my understanding. See e.g. here:

http://www.rightsofwriters.com/2011/02/sixteen-things-writers-should-know.html

which says what I was told a long time ago, which is that if I send you a letter, you own the paper it’s written on (heh) but I own the copyright. I don’t have to assert that right explicitly.

17

Chaz 02.07.14 at 3:50 am

@JanieM,

Thanks, I think you’re totally right. I once read something from the Free Software Foundation that made me think what I said above, but now I can’t find it. From memory they said that if you find someone’s “All rights reserved” copyrighted code online you can’t use it, but if you get them to email it to you then it’s yours free of restrictions. Like you said that’s probably false. Maybe they said something about permission too (but I could have sworn they didn’t).

18

Luis 02.07.14 at 4:49 am

In a nutshell:
- you still own your stuff, and can do whatever you want with it
- they have a license to your stuff, and can also do whatever they want with it

As a few other people have pointed out, this is simultaneously quite extreme (they can use my ideas however they want!), and very standard practice, both in terms of service and in “permissive” open source licenses (though those typically require at least attribution).

It also isn’t completely nuts. Given how litigious people are over ideas, and given how hard it is for organizations to actually track how ideas flow within the organization, it can be pretty reasonable for an organization to say “tracking these ideas, and treating them specially/differently from all other ideas in our company, would be a pain in the ***, so you can either choose not to participate, or you can let us treat these ideas the way we treat everything else that comes in our walls.”

19

Luis 02.07.14 at 5:01 am

(Should say, that’s a nutshell based on that fragment. Haven’t tried to read the whole thing yet.)

20

Z 02.07.14 at 10:05 am

You or the owner of the Content still own the copyright in the Content, but by submitting Content to Twitter, you are granting Twitter an unconditional, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully paid-up, fully transferable, perpetual and worldwide license to evaluate, use, copy, perform, display, publish, transmit, or create derivative works of the Content, or to authorize third parties to evaluate, use, copy, perform, display, publish, transmit, or create derivative works of the Content in any format and on any platform, either now known or hereinafter invented.

These legal advice guys are so lazy, methinks: it seems, among other things, that I retain an exclusive right to imitate, reproduce, echo, mirror, parrot, mimic, ape, disseminate, dispatch, relay, present, propagate, promulgate, scatter and flaunt derivative works of the Content. As these words better describe my research than those of the contract, I wouldn’t feel threatened.

21

dk 02.07.14 at 11:49 am

Luis @18

It’s very much not “standard practice” for academics, whose livelihood depends on their knowledge and ideas. That’s rather the point.

22

Jason 02.07.14 at 12:43 pm

This is boilerplate language from the contracts I’ve signed as a service provider to companies, all of which have a version of that language. It looks like they’re treating this as work-for-hire in terms of their rights, but are relaxing their exclusive rights to the ‘content’ by allowing applicants to retain it as well.

Either way, Ester is right to be concerned. It’s one thing to demand these rights as a condition for funding, but quite another to claim them over the proposal stage.

23

Jason 02.07.14 at 12:44 pm

And apologies for misspelling your name Eszter – I clearly should have had more coffee before hitting “Submit.”

24

Scott Martens 02.07.14 at 12:45 pm

I read this as a standard Internet ToS copypasted to where it isn’t appropriate. Googling finds at least 26 websites with very similarly worded ToS’s, including The Guardian. Twitter is not a standard academic institution. It does not have any standard academic bureaucrats on staff. It does, however, retain lawyers with some background in ToS policy.

I now have to get a Twitter account to see their form. Dammit, I am trying to join as little social media as possible since my mother forced me to get a Facebook account.

I doubt they will be impressed by standard academic research forms either. Maybe I should send them a grant proposal in LOLspeak paragraphs of no more than 140 characters.

25

harry b 02.07.14 at 1:35 pm

Not really true that the livelihood of academics depends on their knowledge and ideas. Mostly it depends on the willingess of young people and their parents to pay to go to college. The relationship between what their livelihood depends on and their knowledge of ideas is not simple…

26

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 3:15 pm

It’s very much not “standard practice” for academics, whose livelihood depends on their knowledge and ideas.

This is the exact opposite of the truth. The entire point of academia is to break the link between academics’ livelihood and their ideas, so that they can pursue the latter without worrying about the former.

So my answer to Ezster’s question would be: You still own everything that you, as an academic, have any reason to care about. As a scholar, you have already given up the moral right to exclude others from your work for your personal profit. That’s the other side of the social contract that gives you tenure, academic freedom, etc.

27

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 3:18 pm

(Sorry for the misspelling of Eszter.)

28

V Piqbe 02.07.14 at 3:36 pm

@26: The twitter license waives your right to be attributed for your ideas. Even as a scholar, you still have the moral right for this, especially when the research is not even done yet.

Moreover, the reality is that most academics do not have tenure, and in many places a tenure system does not even exist. So the answer actually is: you give up the only thing on which your livelihood as a scholar depends on.

29

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 3:47 pm

You still own everything that you, as an academic, have any reason to care about. As a scholar, you have already given up the moral right to exclude others from your work for your personal profit. That’s the other side of the social contract that gives you tenure, academic freedom, etc.

I find this line of argument that equates giving Twitter, a private, for profit company, a blank license on your work to ideas of open software or open science just so bizarre.
1. Twitter isn’t making you put a CC license on your work so everyone can use it. They get a license, which, among other things, allows them to exclude others from work that is derivative of yours.
2. This is at the grant stage of things. You can maybe argue that science _should_ work in a way that everything is open from the first inception of an idea (and that’s actually much more the case in the humanities and some of the social sciences than in many of the life sciences), but in a world where getting scooped on a publication can make the difference between tenure or not, that’s just not the reality. And if you think science should work like this, you should require scientists to publish their ideas under an open license accessible to everyone. Not to grant a license to a company.

Luis @18

It also isn’t completely nuts. Given how litigious people are over ideas, and given how hard it is for organizations to actually track how ideas flow within the organization, it can be pretty reasonable for an organization to say “tracking these ideas, and treating them specially/differently from all other ideas in our company, would be a pain in the ***

but if that’s the argument, that’s really a scandal, because they’re essentially saying: apply for this grant and anything you submit in the process becomes part of the ideas that flow within our company, even if you get nothing out of the process.

30

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 4:16 pm

adam.smith-

You’re right, I was arguing as if this were a CC license. So perhaps I overstated the case. But note that the question posed in the post is “What do you still own?”, not “What does Twitter now own?”. I agree that Twitter claiming a property right in academic work is potentially problematic, but limiting the property rights of scholars over their work seems perfectly appropriate to me and, in fact, a central norm of academia. (Of course that norm, like all norms, is sometimes violated in practice.) It doesn’t appear to me that this agreement limits the ownership rights of the researcher any more than, say, the requirement that NIH-supported work be published in an open-source journal. Which, I hope you’ll agree, is a good thing.

Frankly I find the idea that academics should “own” their ideas more threatening to scholarship than anything Twitter is doing.

31

Luis 02.07.14 at 4:20 pm

“apply for this grant and anything you submit in the process becomes part of the ideas that flow within our company, even if you get nothing out of the process.”

As has previously been pointed out, this is[1] supposed to be part of the social bargain of academia – you create ideas and get tenure, the rest of us learn from and use those ideas. I understand that this is a more in-your-face, and one-company-centric, expression of that idea, but it’s not that much different than the social contract that is supposed to occur once something has been published – you own the idea, the rest of us get to benefit from it. (It’s actually, by the way, arguably much less offensive than the average journal publication agreement, in which the journal actually does own the article and you, the author, only get a very restricted, non-permissive license about what you can do with the article. But that, admittedly, is restricted only to the specific paper rather than the ideas therein.)

[1] Well, arguably “was”, since the post-Bayh-Dole “reform” of university intellectual property scandalously turned universities into patent trolls.

32

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 4:36 pm

Right, what Luis said.

33

Random Lurker 02.07.14 at 4:46 pm

@adam.smith
“1. Twitter isn’t making you put a CC license on your work so everyone can use it. They get a license, which, among other things, allows them to exclude others from work that is derivative of yours.”

However, since Twitter’s rights are not exclusive, you can still apply a CC license on your work so that everybody can get your work for free. This means that if someone at Twitter makes some derivative work, and sells it for a price, s/he can only ask a price for his/her “added intellectual value”.

34

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 4:59 pm

I really am for open science, but you just gloss over the two points I made:

1. This isn’t about publications (which agree should be open access) but about initial ideas in forms of a grant, which means the academics haven’t received any credit for them and the ideas are at a stage where they can be scooped with relative ease. I have not heard of any proposals that would require making work publicly available at such an early stage. Would you favor a provision that requires all grant submissions to all public agencies to be open access? If we were to make such a case (and I think that would be hard) that would require a fundamental rethinking of what type of work academics are credited for, how we think of academic collaboration vs. competition etc.

and

2. This isn’t about the “social” but about a single company, which could, among other things, file patents based on work derivative of the grant applications and then charge the public for use of those patents (note how Twitter owns works derivative of the content submitted). Isn’t that the exact opposite of the social contract? If something belongs to the public, not to me, how can I grant a license to twitter to use it?

Frankly I find the idea that academics should “own” their ideas more threatening to scholarship than anything Twitter is doing.

If you want to think of this in more practical terms, replace “Twitter” with “Pfizer”. I think the claim that academics owning their work is being more threatening to the public good than the appropriation of publicly funded research for private gains at high costs to the public at large (software patents, pharma patents…) is rather daring.

35

Plume 02.07.14 at 5:22 pm

Is there also one of those sections of small print which says “we retain the right to change everything we just said whenever we want at any time without informing you at all, so there. Nani nani na-na!”?

That is frequently a part of EULA-speak.

36

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 5:30 pm

adam.smith-

I think our disagreement is not about principles so much as about what this particular contract entails. It doesn’t seem to me that this contract allows Twitter to do anything that they could not do if the work were published under a CC license or were in the public domain. In particular, it doesn’t seem that Twitter has any right to exclude third parties from using the work. Sure, they can patent derivative work. So can anyone else, if you allow it. If I’m wrong about that, well, that would be a different story.

If something belongs to the public, not to me, how can I grant a license to twitter to use it?

If it’s in the public domain, you don’t have to grant Twitter a license to use it, they already can.

37

Plume 02.07.14 at 5:31 pm

People shouldn’t try to equate a social contract among academics with a supposed social contract among private, for-profit companies. That’s not destined to go very well and falls into the category of profound naivete.

38

Tom Slee 02.07.14 at 5:43 pm

What adam.smith said. I’m surprised by people excusing Twitter’s “intent” (mark #15, luis #18 to some extent) or, if I read it right, minimizing it as copy-and-paste laziness. Whether or not it’s inappropriate copy-and-paste is irrelevant: a legal agreement is a legal agreement and its meaning is the words themselves, not anybody’s intent or lack of effort.

Also: what is this idea that a company can pre-vet research studies on what is, after all, its bread and butter? Will research proposals of the form “We hypothesize that twitter activity is positively correlated with agoraphobia” have as much chance of approval as “We hypothesize that twitter activity is positively correlated with personal success”? This looks like a marketing effort to better portray Twitter’s positive contributions to the well-being of society.

And third, sticking with the “all your Content is belong to us” theme, I liked this note from Ellery Biddle about Airbnb’s day of community service, in which the EULA says that by participating in “community service” you agree to be part of Airbnb’s advertising, so “turning the simple act of helping into a product.”

39

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 5:49 pm

I think our disagreement is not about principles so much as about what this particular contract entails.

I mostly agree, yes. We both agree that scholarship should be publicly accessible and that academics shouldn’t be thought to hold general ownership of their work which is pretty much always produced with public support (depending on the details that support can be direct—NSF grants—or indirect—text exempting their employer, subsidizing loans to the people who pay their salary via tuition etc.).

I’m not sure we agree at which point “publicly accessible” begins. I’m not super dedicated to this, and it’s not really important in my field, but in general I think academics have a right to a basic level of confidentiality at the level of research proposals (be they for grants, dissertations, etc.). That’s my point 1 and I’m not sure what you think about this.

The second point is indeed about the details of this:

Sure, they can patent derivative work. So can anyone else, if you allow it. If I’m wrong about that, well, that would be a different story.

If the work is in the public domain, yes. But open source licenses like GPL and the most common open access license – CC-BY-SA – have share alike provisions. I.e. someone using your work under that license can not copyright (and I believe in the case of the GPL not patent, though IANAL) derivative works. But since you’ve granted Twitter a different license, they could.

40

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 5:58 pm

Tom @38 —yes. Though as I say above, I’d actually twist this around a little:

minimizing it as copy-and-paste laziness

I think copy-and-paste laziness doesn’t minimize but makes this worse, because it shows that, illustrated nicely by AirBnB, “all your Content is belong to us” has become the default position of the industry.
I find this much more alarming than the thought of a single company trying to scam academics.

41

Eszter Hargittai 02.07.14 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for the various perspectives. A couple of points I wanted to address regarding what it may mean to academics to have their ideas taken at this stage, especially by those who have the relevant resources to run with those ideas.

In response to Harry B’s point, academic success (e.g., tenure) and salaries in particular (i.e., livelihood) are very much dependent on research output, at least at some institutions, and said research output mainly needs to be in the form of tangibles like publications, invited talks, grants, conference presentations, and the sort. In most fields, ideas on their own without a tangible output like the ones I listed are not going to give the originator much by way of credit.

This then relates to other people’s suggestions that academics develop reputations and get positions/promotions/grants and other outcomes through their ideas. Again, those ideas need to be in the form of some tangible output. It is extremely rare, especially these days, that it is enough to be brilliant and simply get things such as positions and promotions based on that. Accordingly, it is important to have some control over your ideas until you are able to reach some of those tangible outputs.

By all means, once published (ideally), it is certainly important for those ideas to circulate. But at the idea stage, it’s too soon in order for the idea originator to get credit.

Also, I agree with those who keep reminding us that this is about a private company gaining access to said ideas, not the public.

Tom Slee’s point in 38 is also very important and could make for an important spin-off post. What does it mean for companies to get to decide who gets to do research related to them or even unrelated to them (i.e., I suspect many of the questions people are asking are not about Twitter per se, but social phenomena they want to observe through tweets).

On that last point, there is also the issue of problems with such data in the first place, but that really deserves a separate post (in fact, I have an entire paper in draft form on that).

42

JW Mason 02.07.14 at 7:58 pm

Also: what is this idea that a company can pre-vet research studies on what is, after all, its bread and butter? Will research proposals of the form “We hypothesize that twitter activity is positively correlated with agoraphobia” have as much chance of approval as “We hypothesize that twitter activity is positively correlated with personal success”?

But Tom, this has nothing to do with the contract language. No matter how the rights to the work are assigned, Twitter is still going to have a choice of who to release its data to. If they are accepting proposals, they are pre-vetting by definition. The only way NOT to pre-vet would be to freely release their data to everyone who wants it. (Which would be the best policy, but again, has nothing to do with the specific language here.)

43

Eszter Hargittai 02.07.14 at 8:12 pm

JW Mason, you’re right that this is not about the contract language. But we don’t have to keep discussion so strictly tied to the OP’s specific focus. (Hah! Need I remind CT commenters that staying strictly on topic is hardly a precondition to commenting here?) It’s an important point that is worth a discussion and this is as good a place as any to bring it up (but sure, it shouldn’t be confused with the legalities discussed).

44

TM 02.07.14 at 8:27 pm

I recently read something – can’t now remember where – about the need for the Consumer Protection Agency to take action against unfair default contract language. This problem isn’t restricted to online business. Basically almost all the contracts that we legally engage in in everyday life were written by corporate interests to make sure that the customer practically has to sign away their legal rights before they can engage in a business transaction. There is no defense against this because all corporations do it. You are always “free” not to sing the contract but you can’t negotiate the terms of the contract and you won’t find another business partner that will accept fair contract terms.

Btw this is a prime example of why the libertarian contractualism is absurd: there are practically no freely negotiated contracts any more. If we have any contract rights left, it’s because of laws and regulations.

45

TM 02.07.14 at 8:33 pm

I was referring to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

46

Shelby 02.07.14 at 8:54 pm

Several comments suggest that what Twitter offers is a CC-type license. I think this is broadly true, except for the lack of attribution requirement and the fact that Twitter (and its third-party sub-licensees) could make full commercial use of the Content and its derivatives (to the extent those are created by Twitter/sub-licensees), with no recompense to the licensor.

I note that the quoted language ignores the non-waivable moral rights enjoyed by creators under some European law; if the proposed license is to be enforced under US, that issue may be moot, depending on the specific phrasing of that clause.

47

Tom Slee 02.07.14 at 9:07 pm

The question of what kind of license this is seems off-track, perhaps dragged there by the ugly and ubiquitous word “Content”. If a potential employer were to tell my that my job application was to be “licensed content” I’d not apply. Has anyone ever seen applications of any kind subject to licensing? Architecture contests maybe?

But if the license needs a name, I propose CC BY-FU.

48

Jake 02.07.14 at 9:11 pm

Does anyone have a copy of the agreement that you don’t need a Twitter account to view?

49

Eszter Hargittai 02.07.14 at 9:12 pm

Tom Slee @47 – I think people have ignored/missed several important points in this conversation. The one you point out – that this is an agreement one has to sign at the point of application for a grant! – is an important one that people need to acknowledge. Others include that this is a private entity and that academics’ ideas are rarely attributed to them until there is some tangible output from said ideas.

50

Tom Slee 02.07.14 at 9:22 pm

Jake: I’ve copy and pasted it, appropriately enough, to Google Drive here. There are some links in it that are missing.

51

Tom Slee 02.07.14 at 9:25 pm

And when you click “Next” it takes you to a page like this (again, copy and paste).

52

Jake 02.07.14 at 9:27 pm

It sounds like Twitter doesn’t want to get sued by someone who submits a grant and then claims that their research idea got scooped depriving them of the Nobel Prize that was rightfully theirs.

Are they being paranoid? Maybe? Some prospective grant applicants are clearly worried about their ideas being stolen so it’s not entirely unfounded. If they hear from a bunch of people who say “I’d love to apply but I want some assurance that my proposal is not going to be leaked to my academic rivals” they might reconsider…

53

Dingbat 02.07.14 at 9:32 pm

Talk to your Tech Transfer Office (before signing, but you knew that).

This is what they are experts in. (IANAL, IANA tech transfer professional, but my wife is.)

54

Jake 02.07.14 at 9:36 pm

Yeah, Clause 2 is pretty clear:

Do not submit confidential information. Twitter will not keep your Content confidential, as your Content will be copied and distributed to many people at Twitter for evaluation. If you would like to keep your Content confidential, do NOT send it to Twitter.

55

Widmerpool 02.07.14 at 10:17 pm

Contracts lawyer, conversant with IP, but not a specialist, here. I suspect David @13 still has it right. Twitter is highly attuned to IP issues and doesn’t want to have to track who owns the copies of your text that will be floating around.

The most important part of the agreement is where they say they won’t keep your application confidential, so don’t submit confidential stuff. If that’s a deal breaker, don’t deal.

There is some understandable confusion in this thread about what copyright protects, versus patents, and what a derivative work is. Copyright protects expression, not ideas. Twitter could in theory steal your idea and not tread on your copyright at all, if it didn’t copy your words. They’ve already warned you it’s not confidential.

Could you patent your academic idea? Highly doubtful. So what are you losing by waiving a patent claim? It’s really just legalese. (Why does Twitter ask, if it’s not worth anything, you may ask. Custom. Habit.)

Similarly, @36 and 39, you don’t “patent a derivative work.” Derivative work is a copyright concept. Like the screen adaptation of a novel. Both the original and the derivative work can be copyrighted. The latter includes expression from the former but also its own expression. But you can’t patent the idea for the book or the movie.

What are you giving Twitter with a copyright license? Since they’re already telling you your application isn’t confidential, I think not much. I seriously doubt Twitter is plotting to make money on expressive works derived from your grant applications. They are just covering themselves because they actually know what a derivative work is and realize they may be creating them by sharing, cutting and pasting parts of your applications.

56

Andrew F. 02.07.14 at 10:30 pm

I think Luis at 18 largely nailed it, though I agree with a lot of other points as well.

Does anyone know of a way for Twitter to protect, practically, itself from numerous potential lawsuits while agreeing to more restricted use of these proposals?

Scott Martens: I now have to get a Twitter account to see their form. Dammit, I am trying to join as little social media as possible since my mother forced me to get a Facebook account.

Just use mailinator to create a fake account. Hell create one for everyone in the thread.

57

adam.smith 02.07.14 at 11:18 pm

The protection against lawsuits stuff is bs.
Twitter employees read thousands of pages of copyrighted material every day. Newspapers are copyrighted. Most blogs are copyrighted. Most academic papers are copyrighted. Why can’t Twitter handle grant applications just like any other copyrighted source of information available to its employees? The idea that somehow you can’t safely read something that you don’t own an unrestricted license to lest you’ll get sued is quite obviously wrong.

Could you patent your academic idea? Highly doubtful.

have you ever looked at software patents???

58

MattK 02.07.14 at 11:33 pm

Twitter has historically been really cagey about letting researchers examine their giant collection of tweets, so this is good news on that front. They cracked down pretty hard on people redistributing corpora of tweets and downloading them from Twitter isn’t easy either: they limit you to 180 API calls/15 minute window.

The terms do look a little daunting, but it also depends on your plan. If you’re submitting a brilliant machine learning idea, it does look like this would let them tip off their own researchers—and they might do that if your idea is good enough (it also lets them avoid drama if one of their own people independently heads down the same path). On the other hand, my friend is a political scientist who studies how people communicate about elections. Access to tweets would be very helpful for her, but it seems incredibly unlikely that she’d end up going toe-to-toe with a Twitter staffer at APSA.

59

Widmerpool 02.08.14 at 12:08 am

@57. Most boilerplate is bs. But the issue is copying, not reading. I highly doubt that they copy and email around large chunks of copyrighted material without a license.

And I have seen a software patent, actually. Didn’t look much like a grant application. Seriously?

60

Tom Slee 02.08.14 at 2:36 am

Widmerpool: I’m puzzled. From what I can see, every other organization under the sun does exactly what Twitter is proposing to do, without the protections of this agreement. They accept applications, proposals and the like, and circulate them internally to the people who need to see them. I can’t see any reason why Twitter can’t manage this task beyond conformity to a pervasive Silicon Valley culture that demands every interaction from book reading to hitchhiking be wrapped around with a license agreement.

The only exception I’m aware of is Hollywood, where people actively state that they don’t look at submitted manuscripts for fear of law suits.

61

JW Mason 02.08.14 at 3:50 am

Eszter, adam.smith, and Tom Slee: You’ve convinced me. (For whatever that’s worth.)

62

dk 02.08.14 at 11:55 am

Harry b @25, JW Mason @ 26

Thanks for letting me know. I’ve obviously been doing academia wrong all these years. Who knew that my knowledge and ideas had nothing to do with it?

63

Widmerpool 02.08.14 at 3:00 pm

Tom Slee @60. Twitter’s approach is overkill and I’m not here to defend it. I’m suggesting to the academics here that it’s vanishingly unlikely that Twitter is plotting to steal and publish their expressive prose in their grant applications.

People who make and distribute copies of submitted texts without the authors’ permission rely (knowingly or not) on the doctrines of fair use and implied copyright license. (Ever make a copy of a student’s essay without asking? I don’t know why you would, but that’s a technical copyright violation with a strong fair-use defense.) Twitter could do that too, but it seems to be super-IP-conscious and wants the belt and suspenders.

People in Hollywood do as you say because they are highly aware that they are all in the business of creating derivative works–movies derived from screenplays. Twitter knows that, say, a reviewer’s document with chunks of your grant application cut and pasted alongside the reviewer’s comments is also technically a derivative work. I tend to agree that it’s silly for them to think an academic might sue Twitter for creating and circulating that work, but then, after reading this thread ….

64

Witt 02.08.14 at 3:44 pm

I’m trying to game this out here. Let’s say I wanted to compare positive:negative ratio of the (public) replies to tweets on feminism vs. tweets on the Philadelphia Phillies.

(My underlying hypothesis might be something like: While social/political issues and athletic fandom both inspire passionate beliefs and partisanship, sports disagreements on Twitter are rarely as directly physically threatening or personally contemptuous as feminism debates.)

Let’s further assume that in my imaginary application to Twitter, I am proposing some relatively novel, useful, and practical way of culling and analyzing relevant tweets.

What Twitter is apparently saying is that my submission of an application grants them the right to take my data-gathering/analysis approach, patent it, and sell it to the government of Uganda to use in identifying and prosecuting LGBT rights activists. Or, closer to home, Twitter could sell my approach to Merck for them to use in going after anti-cervical-cancer-vaccine activists.

Yes? Or am I missing something important?

(In case it isn’t obvious, I’m on the side that says this is laziness + malfeasance on Twitter’s part.)

65

Jake 02.08.14 at 4:34 pm

Twitter can’t patent your approach because they didn’t invent it. But if you’ve already applied for a patent on your approach and the patent issues, you can’t sue Twitter for using your approach because Twitter is making you waive the right to do so to apply to their program.

You could still sue the government of Uganda or Merck for violating your patent.

66

Luis 02.08.14 at 5:20 pm

“every other organization under the sun does exactly what Twitter is proposing to do, without the protections of this agreement.”

That’s not correct. No technology company will look at publicly submitted ideas without some variation on this in place – all public bug trackers/feature request systems of any halfway-competently run tech company will have this sort of language in place, for example. It’s for exactly the same reasons as Hollywood, because lawsuits over this sort of thing are not hypothetical (or at least weren’t until this practice became widespread).

why can’t they treat this the same as other copyrighted material?

Because randomly available copyrighted material usually isn’t copied verbatim in widely-disseminated/presumably intense internal discussions, and isn’t directly solicited from the author, and isn’t specifically written to be about very specific, particular aspects of their business. Those factors all increase the risk that the author will sue you, so (again) any competently-lawyered tech company, when faced with those situations, will get a waiver of this sort.

They will put protections in place if they are working specifically with information that is difficult to obtain, expensive, rare, etc. – but it is understood that those protections are extremely costly and should only be taken when absolutely necessary. “We’re doing a favor to some academics by giving them access to our data” does not fall into the “absolutely necessary” case.

“this is a prime example of why the libertarian contractualism is absurd: there are practically no freely negotiated contracts any more.”

Agreed. I suspect this might not be acceptable/enforceable in Europe as a result of the directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts, probably depending primarily on whether something as niche as this is actually a consumer contract for purposes of the directive or not.

why can’t they just solve this by publishing the data under an open license, and not pre-screen the academics?

I’m merely speculating here, but I suspect that they are concerned about privacy issues – reidentification continues to advance by the day, so simply saying “anonymize it and then open it up” may not be very reassuring to them. They’ll likely want contractual limits on privacy/reidentification that can’t be present in an open license. (They may also want non-commercial restrictions, which I agree are indefensible in the academic context.)

concerns about pre-publication access

Agreed that these concerns are real. On the flip side, so are Twitter’s concerns about getting sued – for doing someone the favor of giving away data that they could have just sat on! If it helps, think past the contract and about Twitter’s incentives: yes, it is possible that they could end up leaking this to a “competitor” in the brutal tenure game. This contract permits them to do it, but they don’t have much incentive to do it – doing that doesn’t help their business. The situation where they turn your idea into a product (or more likely an internal research project) is somewhat more likely; there are likely a lot of internal incentives for them to run with it. At the same time, if it is actually a really unique and innovative idea, and they want to build it/turn it into a product, they also have a lot of incentive to reach out to the author and work with them on it, which will likely lead to a lot of good things for the author (better data access, more publication opportunities, jobs, cash) – something that happens all the time in Silicon Valley. So, yes, the contract lets them screw you over during the brief window where you’re trying to protect your pre-publication idea – but the odds of it, in practice, aren’t very high.

None of this is to say that you should sign it, Ezter! If you don’t like the restrictions, don’t play ball, and look for data from other social networks. It’s just to say that leaping to a “Twitter is an evil thief, this is outrageous” conclusion also isn’t very justifiable.

67

Widmerpool 02.08.14 at 5:40 pm

Witt @64. Assuming your idea is patentable, maybe, but maybe not! (I guarantee that’s what your university IP counsel would say. I just saved you a trip.)

The form waives the applicant’s claims against Twitter specifically “for evaluating, using, copying, performing, displaying, publishing, transmitting, or creating derivative works of the Content.” You could argue that by coding and patenting your software idea, Twitter was doing a lot more than merely blah blah blah a derivative work based on your Content. Consult an IP litigator for your odds.

Note that the patent issue has nothing to do with your copyright in the text of your application. It has to do with your research idea. And if your idea is teh valuable, why would you send it to Twitter on a non-confidential basis in the first place–unless you had already patented it? (That’s what patents are for.)

Finally–and I swear I’m out now–I don’t like corporations either, but as I understand it, Twitter is spending time and effort to give researchers free data that Twitter could otherwise charge for. We’ve all worked in bureaucracies. Can’t you imagine a Twitter boss saying, “Well, all right, but get Legal involved and make damn sure we don’t get sued for our trouble. Round up the usual disclaimers.”?

68

Widmerpool 02.08.14 at 6:04 pm

Wishing for a delete option @67. Jake and Luis covered it.

69

Piketting 02.08.14 at 10:38 pm

jake @: the answer “it depends” looks much more exact to me…
IANAPatentL, but patent laws are not first-to-invent anymore nor anywhere. For instance in a pure first-to-file world like Europe, Twitter could patent your algorithm or idea if you did expressely submit this idea to them as not confidential and can therefore not use Art.61 EPC anymore for deterring them (ok, I may use the wrong number here, it was only for displaying gravitas…) .
On the other hand they would have difficulties to patent a business method in Europe. And likely too if they tried to patent in Europe some software algorithm for the ideas I can imagine in that case, but there again the big correct answer is probably “it depends”…

70

Tom Slee 02.08.14 at 11:56 pm

Luis #66: I see what you mean about feature submissions, though I think they’re different in important ways.

Comments on this entry are closed.