Here’s a topic you can mull over if conversation gets slow during tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner: Does Twitter infringe your copyright every time you post to it (i.e., put up a “tweet”)?
One of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner (under 17 U.S.C. 106) is the right to display the work. A website displays content when it serves up pages to the end user. Posts to Twitter — though they’re only 140 characters maximum — are arguably copyright protected works. (Set aside the question of retweeting.)
Twitter’s Terms of Service, in an earnest effort to be generous and progressive, assure users that when it comes to copyright, “what’s yours is yours.” Elaborating on this point, the Terms of Service go on to say that “[Twitter] claim[s] no intellectual property rights over the material you provide to the Twitter service.” In so many words, Twitter is saying “thanks but no thanks” to any copyright rights it might otherwise have over user-submitted content.
But by displaying tweets, Twitter is exercising one of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. To do this lawfully, it has to have permission. And this permission is an intellectual property right. But didn’t Twitter just tell us that it doesn’t want any such right? Yes. So it has no permission. Exercise of an exclusive copyright right without permission (fair use aside) is infringement.
So should we all go out and sue Twitter for infringement? Of course not. Twitter would have a number of good defenses, which I expect may get articulated in the comments to this post. Are you really going to pay the filing fee to the Copyright Office and register the copyright in each of your tweets? You’ll have to do that before you can even show up in court. And what about injunctive relief? A court order making Twitter take down your stuff would seem to defeat the whole purpose, at least a little bit.
Similar analysis from Venkat here.