Your Comments are Valuable

Ever notice how your comments on the Chapel Hill News blog Orange Chat end up in the paper? First time I noticed my comments there I though, “Wow. That’s cool. My words in print for people to see.” Its kind of like a letter to the editor. But now I am concerned that all this user generated content isn’t being obtained ethically.

Comments on a blog are information. Information is a commodity. It has real value. To discover this value you need to know how to use it. But before you do that where do you get this commodity? You ask people to give it to you. What do you provide in return? The going “rate” is space to leave a comment and the “privilege” to have it put in front of thousands or millions of people. If you can get these returns by creating your own blog and doing some Search Engine Optimization yourself then you may be able to compete with large corporations. This is the entrepreneurial democratization of commerce. This is one way sites like Digg or are making money in the Internet age.

I am not against this practice. Its a popular form of business. But are these businesses compensating you fairly? I believe the majority of the people out there using sites, leaving comments and clicking links, are not fully aware of the resources they are creating. User generated content is quite important to democracy and community. But when we don’t understand its value we may not be equal partners in business transactions.

Our comments and letters are actually a type of free user generated content turned into profit. When you sign up to log into many sites and leave comments you can relinquishing your rights to what you write in your comments. Try reading the terms and services. Notice that little check box above a submit button? Usually there is a link there to some confusing legalese. Contained therein are words that strip you of your copyrights. (Not all sites. Comments on this blog are the exclusive property of there authors.)

Those few words you write in comments on Orange Chat may not have any value else where but they do contribute to the content of the paper. There are a ton of “free” websites that collect user generated content and leverage it to create sales from advertising online. In fact this is a main tenant of Web 2.0 business models. Take free data, represent it, sell ads, and provide premium services. aka the Freemium Business model.

The past few years has shown a real change in the relationship that journalists have with blogs. Before newspapers started blogging we wrote about local issues on our blogs. We made two way conversations possible and integrated first person stories about events and ideas. All before many journalist knew what a blog was or thought them worthy of concern.

Now we see how important local blogs are to local political reporting. Reporters read local blogs like Orange Politics to understand what some are thinking and discussing. Blog comments can be the ultimate research tool in understanding street level thought about local events. Blogs can be lead generation machines. Especially for a reporter who may not live in a local community for a long enough time to know people or the issues.

I applaud journalist use of blog and their comments for research. But recently I think some may have crossed the line. I believe our copyrights have been violated.

RE: Councilman seeks recount Front page story in the Chapel Hill News on Sunday November 11, 2007. In this story several comments left on where reprinted verbatim. Orange Politics was referenced as the source, but that was not enough to fulfill the copyright terms of the sites Creative Commons license.

The Chapel Hill News use of comments in their for-profit publication appears to violate the Creative Commons license this website uses. This license applies to the posts and comments.

The Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 1.0 Generic license that uses has the following conditions:

You are free:
* to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
* to Remix — to adapt the work

Under the following conditions:
* Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
* Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

* For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link to this web page.
* Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.
* Nothing in this license impairs or restricts the author’s moral rights.

Has the Chapel Hill News obtained written or verbal permission from commenters Tom Jensen or Mark Marcoplos to waive these conditions?

Has the Chapel Hill News made it clear to others the license this site uses by linking directly to this site and/or comments? (FYI, each comment on this site has a unique URL.)

Here are direct links to the comments quoted in the Chapel Hill News that appear to violate the Noncommercial condition of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 1.0 Generic license.

Tom Jensen’s Comment on Orange Politics reprinted in the Chapel Hill News

Mark Marcoplos’s Comment on Orange Politics reprinted in the Chapel Hill News

I, Brian Russell, hereby provide permission to reprint my comments or posts on Orange to not for profit publications. All other publications must obtain written permission from myself to publish any text. Thank you.

All in all I am quite happy that journalists use Orange Politics as a source. I object to their lack of direct linking to specific sources and disregard for the legal terms of websites. The people who work hard on non-profit sites like Orange Politics do it for there community, not for profit. When for profit websites like lift text verbatim they profit unfairly from there communities hard work. Ignorance of our copyright terms is not an excuse.

This problem could be fixed in several ways. I’d like to see the Chapel Hill News, and all other for profit media companies, to link to all sources inside a stories body content. (using a URL) Also they could obtain direct written permission from each copyright holder if they intend to profit from their republished comments. Finally I think all modern journalists, editors, owners and others need training in modern copyright law especially as it pertains to the Creative Commons license.

5 thoughts on “Your Comments are Valuable

  1. I understand your general thrust but I could also see the CHN’s use as something akin to reporting on graffiti someone scrawled on a public wall. Mark and Tom’s comments were “scrawled” on a public wall – did the wall get proper attribution. Not really.

    Was the consequence of that injurious to them – no – I don’t think so.

    Did it rob OP of some value – you obviously think so – that appears to be why your upset.

    As far as “The people who work hard on non-profit sites like Orange Politics do it for there community, not for profit. ” OP is a calling card for Ruby. She definitely has used it to advance her career – so I don’t think this statement is supportable by the facts.

  2. Brian, I've got to say that this looks like it falls under Fair Use. Regardless of the license on the content, the article excerpts portions of the comments for the purpose of news reporting. It would be nice if they linked back to OP, but I think they're use of the comments is legal.

    Here's an interesting question: Are blog comments part of the "original" work — the blog post — or are they separate works?

  3. If OrangePolitics’s blog comments fall under fair use then what power does the NonCommerical condition have in Creative Commons License?

    How is it just that a news organization can “borrow” text under fair use then lock it up under more restrictive terms? For example: Under stories at the News and Observer you find this.. “All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.” Here is the N&Os Terms of Use.

    My gut says blog comments are separate or sub works. At least in context of ownership. But its possible that the ownership (leasing) of the web server and database trumps the ownership of the text content in some way.

    Complicated stuff. Easy to appreciate several points of views that appear to contradict each other.

  4. I think — and now I get to say IANAL for the first time ever — that the restrictions in the CC license only apply when fair use does not. My understanding of fair use is that:

    1. The usage can’t be the whole damn thing
    2. It has to be for a supported purpose: parody, news, etc.
    3. It has to be part of creating a new work

    Since they excerpted the comments, used them for reportage, and used the comments to create a “new work,” they’re covered by fair use.

    And this is where my musing about comments as “works” comes in. If a comment is an independent work, what might be considered a fair portion to quote before you are effectively reproducing the work in total?

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that comments are independent works, but in a sense they’re meaningless outside the original context of the blog post. Most comments don’t stand on their own out side of that context… Except when they do.

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