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Responsive and responsible developers: a tale of Twitter

April 26, 2011

I chose that title hoping to write a positive story about how a group of software developers did the right thing when it comes to the terms of use they attach to their products. As with so many intellectual property stories these days, this one appears to have gone off the rails a bit, although not all is lost at this point.

Thanks to a March 14 exchange on Twitter, I learned about colwiz, a research and collaboration tool being developed in the UK. It’s pretty slick, and clearly has found popularity among researchers in short order. Being a copyright/intellectual property geek, I went first to their terms of service and read up. As I replied via Twitter:

Item #11 reads, in part:

By submitting any content (including without limitation, any photograph, words, pictures, or symbols) to the Site and/or Services, you hereby grant us a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, distribute, have distributed and promote such content in any form, in all media now known or hereinafter created and for any purpose, subject to the Privacy Policy.

Perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free for any medium forever and ever? Pretty bad stuff, really, from a tool developed by researchers for researchers. Even sites such as flickr demand far fewer freedoms from their users. Moreover, this conflicts with allowing researchers to license their material as they see fit, e.g.- attaching a Creative Commons license. It’s much worse than the copyright transfers that publishers (still!) ask academic authors to sign; at least those are explicit. Will this have practical consequences for most users of colwiz? Perhaps not, but it makes the text no less questionable.

While reviewing their terms, it occurred to me to check in at Mendeley–an analogous product–and see what rights they assert with regard to user-generated content. In their privacy policy, one finds this remarkably clear statement:

Whatever personal data and original content you upload to your Mendeley account is owned by you. We do not claim any ownership rights over your research.

By contrast, the privacy policy of colwiz, which speaks mostly to their handling of personal information, contains this rather unsettling clause:

… we reserve the right to disclose your personal information in order to enforce or apply our Terms of Service or to protect the security and integrity of the site and the services, or to protect the rights property or safety of colwiz …

Given that their Terms of Service grants them broad rights to original content, this essentially permits them not only to use it, but to use it in association with one’s name. Again, the practical consequences may rarely or seldom arise, but why leave open such a door for a tool designed for people doing original research? Close it, and reaffirm the users’ right to their own intellectual labor.

Within mere minutes after I had posted my concern about #11 in their TOS, the founder and CEO of colwiz, Tahir Mansoori, had replied via Twitter:

Hooray, so I thought. Score one for reading the fine print. Alas, now over six weeks later, the same clause appears in the TOS. Tahir did note on March 28th that they are working on a revision that would take a “bit longer,” but that was a month ago. I’ve debated for the last week or so whether I should wait and write that “way to go, colwiz” post or write this post instead to spur them along a bit in my own small way. Clearly I’ve opted for the latter, not least because I believe that the colwiz team wants to do the right thing and just needs to know that this matters to at least some users who read the fine print.

It’s horribly tedious and boring to read the myriad click-through licenses and contracts to which one consents, but when it comes to one’s own intellectual property and/or artistic creations, it pays to know what the myriad platforms we use to share/organize/create/etc. allow themselves to do with our output.

Let’s hope this story has a happy ending.

  1. April 26, 2011 16:50

    We took steps accordingly to address this concern and revised colwiz terms of service and privacy policy, however the review process and collaboration with lawyers is taking a bit longer. We wish it was in plain English and we could just change and upload to the website but there are many EU and international privacy/content laws that need to be taken in to consideration to make even a simplest change. We are also bringing some new features after Easter which will require another modification, therefore we chose to update everything in one go. We hope to get new TOS and Privacy updated on our website as soon as new features are out. Apologies for the delay and thanks for writing a nice post on the issue.

    In essence, all the content will be (and is) owned by users, however colwiz (like any other content platform) need a license from those users to show user generated content to other users based on their privacy settings. For example posts, publications and calendar entries in a group are available to all group members according to privacy settings specified by the group admin. Similarly a user can post content to his activity stream and specify who can view this content (only that specific users, their contacts, read only for everyone on colwiz, or everyone on colwiz with comment option). This will be slightly different for publications because 1) many of them are already in public domain 2) publication information is enhanced using multiple records.

    It would be great to have your suggestions. Almost all of the changes will make TOS and Privacy more liberal, i.e, more ownership by users.

  2. Dale permalink*
    May 9, 2011 17:27

    Tahir – Many thanks for taking the time to respond at length to my post, and for understanding the spirit in which it was intended, i.e.- to support your desire to revise the TOS and perhaps put some momentum behind it. I’m delighted at the prospect that this story does have a happy ending in sight, and will certainly do my part to publicize this important move by colwiz.

    I completely agree that your TOS must secure for colwiz the right to use the content to drive the service. That’s standard language in most TOS docs for online collaboration sites of various types. The key is that it not go further and grant colwiz rights to the content outside of the service, which is what item 11 was doing.

    At any rate, I look forward to seeing the new terms so that I can write a ringing endorsement and wish you well.

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