Rights Grabs

I've been running into a problem a lot lately. It's this phrase, or ones just like it:

"a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to exploit all copyright rights now in existence or that may arise in the future"

That comes from the Terms of Service of Medium, a shiny new content platform. Yesterday I used Medium to write a post on why writing for Medium is a bum deal. The translation: Medium is claiming the right to take what you submit and use it in any way they can dream of, forever and ever, without telling you and, more to the point, without paying you.

I don't know about you, but if I posted something on Medium and it happened to make them a million dollars... I'd be super mad if none of that ever trickled down to me. (It's a moot point right now in that Medium doesn't appear to have a business model at all, but I'm confident that won't last forever.)

Alas, Medium isn't alone in that kind of language. Another example: Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal is running a contest to find an author for a tie-in novel. In their rules, they say this:

 

Each entry will be the sole property of the Sponsors. By competing in the Contest and/or accepting 
a prize, each entrant (including the prize winner) grants to Sponsors the right to edit, adapt, publish, copy, display, reproduce and otherwise use their entry in connection with this Contest and in any 
other way, in any and all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the world, 
in perpetuity, including publication on www.darkcrystal.com.
That means they can, say, decide to print an anthology of all of the submitted stories and sell it.... without ever paying the authors for it. That's pretty common language in the terms of service for a site or a promotion any time user-generated content is involved. But it's... not cool.
Sweeping legal claims in website terms of service started out bad and they've only become worse and worse. I can see why it's done -- web services are trying to protect and future-proof themselves in a wildly shifting media landscape. They're collecting all of these rights, not because they actually plan to sell anthologies of content without compensating the writers... but because the copyright system doesn't actually have a simple mechanism in place that allows a web service to act as the agent of a user without staking some kind of ownership over their content.
And in the case of user-generated content, companies are trying to protect themselves from inevitable claims of stolen ideas, suspicious similarities, and the like, ridiculous though those claims usually are. 
But the de facto standard answer doesn't have to be "we own everything you ever show us," nor should it be. Our legal system needs to address this. Maybe we need new licensing standards specifically for web services and for user-generated content.
One wonders what those standards would look like.

 


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