Tiny Copyrights and Defamatory Tweets
Recently, two news stories caught my eye. The first involves a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The case involved a newspaper clipping service called Infopaq. People would sign up with Infopaq and specify what keywords they wanted to keep an eye out for. Infopaq would then scan in articles, find the keywords, and print a listing with those keywords, the five words before and after the keywords, where the article appeared and how far down in the article the keywords appeared. The Danish newspaper industry took exception with this business plan and sued. Infopaq claimed that since their scanning was temporary (they didn’t print whole articles out, just the 11 word snippets), they fell under the copyright exemptions. The Court, however, ruled against them.
The worrying part isn’t that they were dinged for scanning the articles. That, I would have almost expected. Instead, they were dinged for 1) using 11 word snippets and 2) clients being able to print out the snippets. The Court found that 11 word snippets were still covered by copyright law. To give you an example of how ridiculous this is, I’ll quote an 11 word snippet from the article about the ruling: “means that there is a risk that the reproduction will remain”. According to the Court, since you, the reader, could print this blog post out and keep it indefinitely, I’ve now committed copyright infringement.
Of course, I live in the US, so I doubt the ECJ could do anything against me. Still, given the propensity for nations to follow one another over the copyright madness cliff, something like this worries me. Were the “11 word snippet” ruling to be used widely, services like Google News would go dark. Simple quoting from a source (a necessary part of research and protected by Fair Use) would land one in a big, boiling pot of copyright lawsuit soup. I’m not sure what appeals options Infopaq has, but if they have any, let’s hope that this ruling is overturned.
The other story that caught my eye was the tale of Amanda Bonnen from Chicago. Frustrated with her apartment situation, she did what many of us would do: She tweeted about it. Specifically, she wrote: “Who said sleeping in a mouldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s OK.”
Now, many fine companies monitor Twitter and would have taken her complaint as an opportunity to turn bad PR into good by working with her to formulate an appropriate resolution to her. Not Horizon, though. They sued her for $50,000 in defamation damages claiming that because her Twitter profile was public, her 53 character tweet was published “throughout the world.” That’s almost $1,000 in defamation per character! Horizon probably didn’t win any PR points for their “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization” quote either.
Of course, a classic Streisand Effect has occurred. Had Horizon just ignored her, her tweet would have vanished amoung the millions posted around that time. At most, a few of her friends might have retweeted it before it faded into obscurity. (A Google Cache check shows that she had a mere 17 followers.) Instead, major news organizations, blogs and other websites have picked up the story. People are tweeting and retweeting about it much more than Amanda Bonnen would ever have been able to do by herself. Horizon should ask themselves whether suing her for $50,000 over this 53 character tweet was the appropriate action since it caused much more “defamation” than the original tweet did.
The lesson here for companies: Don’t be a sue first, ask questions later kind of institution. Work with your customers for a positive outcome. Then, even if you need to resort to ignoring the person’s problem or (as a last resort) sue them, you can point to your good faith efforts to work with them. That will soften any “big bad company suing a poor defenseless person” PR blow and you might even come out on top PR-wise.
The lesson for users: Don’t assume that what you post on Twitter (or on your blog, Facebook, etc) is just between you and a close-knit group of friends. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say into a microphone in front of a full football stadium of people. This doesn’t mean you should live in fear over being sued for every little tweet/post/update, but keep in mind that you are putting this stuff out on a public network. Don’t say “Housing Co Landlords stink” when “my landlord stinks” would suffice or when “Tried to work with Housing Co Landlords to resolve my problem, but getting frustrated” would be more descriptive.