Who owns the content you post online?
We've all heard speculation about who really owns the content you put online. Who owns the images you put on Facebook? Who owns the emails in your Gmail account? Who owns your Twitter conversations? Or — closer yet to fashion bloggers — who owns the content you post on sites like Chictopia, Lookbook.nu, Weardrobe? And what can they do with your content? Back in December, Lookbook.nu called on its members to submit photos of themselves wearing American Apparel clothing for a booklet. Here the end result is clear, but what happens when you unexpectedly find an image you posted on a network in the style gallery of Payless Shoes?
Erin Hagstrom from Calivintage found out her images posted on Chictopia had been used in the Payless Style Gallery from a newsletter. Keiko Groves from Keiko Lynn found out that her images were used from programmers working on the campaign code. Neither Laura Reilly from Dirty Laundry or Elizabeth Johnson of Delightfully Tacky were even aware of the campaign until we contacted them. The bloggers hadn't voluntarily submitted images to this campaign, nor were they asked, nor were they told when the campaign launched.
“At first, I was excited.” said Erin. “I wear Payless shoes and they're a huge company with a lot of reach, so I was excited to have gotten their attention. Then, when I clicked through the campaign, it struck me that this was not a mutually beneficial situation. The only people who stood to gain traffic or profit from the campaign were Chictopia and Payless. I was really disappointed because I would have loved to work one-on-one with Payless on a campaign if they were interested in my personal style and my outfits featuring their shoes, but instead they cut me out and worked on a deal with Chictopia instead.”
Can companies really use your images?
At first you might think, ‘Hey, that's got to be illegal.' But it's perfectly legal. In the Chictopia Terms of Service (ToS), users give the network permission to use content uploaded to the site, but you may not catch it unless you really read the fine print:
10.CONTENT SUBMITTED OR MADE AVAILABLE FOR INCLUSION ON THE SERVICE
Chictopia does not claim ownership of Content you submit or make available for inclusion on the Service. However, in order to display materials you provide on the Service and elsewhere, we need your permission. As such, by uploading, emailing, posting, publishing or otherwise transmitting Content to any online forum or other feature of the Service, or by submitting any Content or feedback (including, without limitation, suggestions, complaints, ideas, results, modifications, improvements, translations, discoveries and observations) to Chictopia (“Submissions”) by any means, you grant Chictopia a worldwide, royalty-free, fully paid up, non-exclusive, sublicensable, right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, create derivative works of, perform publicly, display publicly, distribute, publish, and transmit such Submissions, including any and all publicity rights therein, in any form, medium, or technology now known or later developed, provided that…
Helen Zhu, founder of Chictopia, didn't immediately reply to a request for a comment [UPDATE: Helen Zhu, left a comment today, see below, noting that Chictopia is working on adding links within the Payless gallery.]. None of the bloggers who submitted quotes knew about this aspect of the terms of service. Laura says, “I had no idea about either this clause or the fact that my photo was used on the Payless website. I don't suppose I mind too much, although it would have been nice for Chictopia to have even attempted to contact me to inform me of this. Finding out this way really adds a negative spin on the whole thing, it could have been rewarding to see myself featured by such a high profile company but instead I feel like my property and rights have been violated.” Keiko and Elizabeth admitted they did not read the terms of service either, and noted that it was their responsibility to do so.
Lookbook.nu has a similar clause in its ToS:
You own all of the content and information you post on LOOKBOOK.nu. In addition, for content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos, you specifically give us the following permission: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with LOOKBOOK.nu (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account.
Yuri Lee of Lookbook didn't immediately reply to a request for a comment. [UPDATE: Yuri Lee did respond via email May 5, 2010 “Since LB began we have always adhered to the fact that all content uploaded to the site is completely owned by the author,” in reference to the ‘You own all of the content and information you post on LOOKBOOK.nu.' verbiage in the clause. She continues, “We do everything in our power to make sure that whenever we ourselves or anyone we work with uses LB content for promotional purposes, such as re-posting looks on our Tumblr or Facebook page, it always links back to the original author's look page.”]
Facebook, MySpace, Weardrobe, I Like My Style, and Modepass all have similar clauses in their terms of services. So if you ever wondered why a bloggers image on a fashion site had a credit to MySpace instead of the blogger, perhaps the blogger has simply been cut out of the equation. Twitter also has a the similar wording in their Terms, however, they clarifiy to their users that this wording is simply an authorization to make the tweets available to the world ‘But what’s yours is yours – you own your content.'
Many bloggers begin their journey from a passion, an obsession to share, to create, to meet new and interesting people. They build their blogs from the ground up, spending hours honing their talents to create something good. For them, it's often a labor of love. Meanwhile, it's their “user-generated content” that social networks rely on to create an audience and make money. What if there was no one on Facebook? Would you go there? Probably not. It's no secret that one of the ways bloggers meet new potential readers, get inspiration, and build their own brands is by spending time on social networks. Larger websites like, TeenVogue, Seventeen, Glamour, WhoWhatWear Daily, scout social networks for potential features. Bloggers rely as much on social networks as do networks rely on bloggers to direct more traffic to their sites.
What can bloggers do?
Does this sound rather Orwellian to you? Well, it should. But it doesn't have to be that way. We're merely lulled into the feeling of powerlessness by fear of losing the opportunity to someone who won't complain. Bloggers have more power than that. Blogger Alyson Woods of Alyson is Neat Twittered: “As a former SEO [Search Engine Optimization] worker, I know what a blogger's opinion is worth trafically and monetarily, most companies under value them totally.” Elizabeth pondered in reaction to the Chictopia and Payless campaign, “With all the hullaballoo about bloggers being unethical in their relationships with brands, one has to stop and wonder if the opposite isn't true as well, perhaps more-so.“
As a fashion blogger you want to grow your blog and you don't want to turn away opportunities, but should companies be able to profit so blatantly at your expense? Without your active consent? In an environment where bloggers struggle to get $25 a month for a banner ad, perhaps it is time for change. It doesn't start with keeping quiet. Erin elaborates why she came forward: “Basically, I'm interested in advocating a fair relationship between businesses, bloggers, and networking sites. These businesses need to understand that it is not a fair practice to cut out the blogger…. Bloggers spend a considerable amount of time styling up their outfits, doing photo shoots, editing the images, and creating unique content to share on the internet. While we provide this content for free on our blogs, it is our right to be able to receive compensation if someone else wants to use it for profit. It's our time, dedication, and creativity.”