Twitter and copyrights, for 25 cents per character

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, recently posed an interesting question. Can you own a copyright in your tweets? The Internet community inundated his blogging site with varied responses. Some claimed that tweets are copyrightable because they are in a tangible form and because the Twitter website claims no interest on its users intellectual property. Others retorted that tweets are too short and unoriginal to qualify for copyright.

Despite the debate, the short answer to whether tweets are copyrightable is … it depends. In theory, tweets could qualify for copyright if they meet the originality requirement needed for registration. The problem is the length and content of tweets. They cannot be more than 140 characters, and they are generally focused on observations or musings about everyday life.

Regardless of Twitter’s statement claiming that it does not own the intellectual property posted on the site, a user cannot claim copyright on something that would not pass the statutory requirements for copyright. For example, facts cannot be copyrighted — neither can short phrases or titles. So if someone tweets about the weather in her city, she cannot copyright her tweet just because she wrote it in a tangible form. The weather is a fact, regardless of what type of language she uses to describe them. A witty or ironic or romantically described fact is still a fact.

The weather example also highlights the scènes à faire doctrine, which is a bar to a copyright claim. The scènes à faire doctrine protects works where certain indispensable or standard elements are used to describe the scene, and the scene cannot be expressed in any other way. A person can only describe a rainy day in so many ways. Scènes à faire prevents one person from monopolizing those finite descriptions.

Therefore, the content of tweets poses a substantial hurdle to qualifying for a copyright. It would have to contain the requisite amount of creativity and be an original expression of idea – no easy feat when Twitter only allows 140 characters. A possible copyrightable tweet that bloggers discussed was a haiku or some other short poem. Originality is the key component — a tweet posted in haiku form still would not be copyrightable if it was not original and did not contain the requisite amount of creativity.

If a tweet is copyrightable, the user would have to register with the United States Copyright Office, and the cost of registration is $35 per claim. Twitter encourages its users to allow their comments to enter the public domain. This recommendation is good public policy — it prevents people from blocking the spread of information through micro-blogging. What would have happened if a Twitter user wanted to copyright his tweets about the protests in Iran? And besides, who would want to spend $35 for every 140 character tweet?

Daliah Saper of Saper Law

Daliah Saper of Saper Law

Daliah Saper
Saper Law Offices LLC
Contact via email or follow on Twitter

~ by CDLB on August 6, 2009.

One Response to “Twitter and copyrights, for 25 cents per character”

  1. Can we use Twitter for educational activities?

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