Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Facebook's "Copyright by status update"

This is primarily a science blog, but I'd like to change the topic for today. I'm probably justified writing about this topic, though, since it involves critical thinking (that and it's my blog I can do what I want, thank you very much).

In the past few days an old hoax has been making the rounds on Facebook. The idea is that since Facebook is now a privately traded company your pictures, status updates, and any other personal information is now freely available unless you post the following status update:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times! 
(Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their FacebookWall. This will place them under protection of copyright laws. By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-103(a) and the Rome Statute). 
Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates…
 Every time someone posts this status I can't help but think of this similar declaration:


Just as Michael Scott can't declare bankruptcy just by saying the words, you can't do anything about your privacy on Facebook just by posting a status update - no matter how many important sounding words and legal codes you mention in it. That's just not how it works. I'm almost positive that nobody posting these statuses has even read the legal codes they're referencing. For example, UCC 1 1-103(a) states that:
(a) [The Uniform Commercial Code] must be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purposes and policies, which are: (1) to simplify, clarify, and modernize the law governing commercial transactions; (2) to permit the continued expansion of commercial practices through custom, usage, and agreement of the parties; and (3) to make uniform the law among the various jurisdictions. 
In other words (or at least how I understand it) the commercial code must be written in a way that allows it to be modernized, allows the expansion of commercial practices, and to make the laws uniform. I'm not sure what that has to do with punishment for using your Facebook status.

The Rome Statute, on the other hand, is a treaty that establishes the jurisdiction of an International Criminal Court (ICC). This ICC investigates war crimes, genocide, crimes of aggression  and crimes against humanity. Your picture may be important to you, but its misuse doesn't have anything to do with the Rome Statute. Furthermore, if you're in the United States it's even more ridiculous to claim copyright protection since the US hasn't even ratified the Rome Statute. 

Sometimes people will post one of these statuses and then in a comment below say something like "It may not be true, but what could it hurt?" 

Well for one thing it can hurt my respect for you. Before writing this I didn't know what the Rome Statute was,1 but it doesn't take long to do your own research. A critically thinking person will take the time to ask "does this make sense?" or "could it really be this easy to copyright something?". There are lawyers who get paid millions to understand copyright law. If it were as easy as posting a status update they would be out of a job. These same critical thinking skills should be used when you see any "Share this picture and this child gets a free {insert medical procedure here}" scams.2

 

The real way to protect yourself online is to realize that you're online. Don't post something you wouldn't want others to see. Know, and control, your own Facebook privacy settings. If you don't like Facebook's privacy settings don't use Facebook. Take the "postcard" approach to your online interactions: You can write to a specific person, but assume that it will be seen by others as well. 


Notes
[1] I've proofread this post several times, terrified that I wrote "Rome Statue" instead of "Rome Statute" somewhere. If I did, let's be clear: Yes, I know the difference.  
[2] I say scam instead of hoax here because the people that post those pictures do have a financial gain when those pictures are shared. An active Facebook page (a page that has lots of likes and gets lots of shares) is a commodity that can be sold. The "scam artists" will post some picture that generates a lot of attention (likes, shares, etc) and then sells the page to a company looking for quick attention.

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