This is Part Three in the blog series, Copyright Protection for Internet Content.
As many readers know, the online social networking service called Twitter is the originator of the term, “tweet”. A tweet is a message with up to 140 characters. One can send, post, and read tweets on Twitter which refers to itself as a microblogging service.
QUESTIONS RELEVANT TO COPYRIGHT STATUS OF A TWEET
Is the Tweet Isolated or Part of a Longer Work? A single 140-character tweet is likely too short to qualify for copyright protection. However, a stream of tweets that together comprise one coherent story may qualify for copyright protection. For example, one might post in a series of consecutive tweets -
a news story
a lecture or a speech
a short work of fiction
Does the Tweet Simply State Facts? As already discussed in Part One and Part Two of this blog series, facts on their own are not copyright protected. Tweets are often factual and may not be eligible for copyright protection.
Does the Tweet Include Visual Images? A visual image included in a tweet is going to have the same copyright protections it would have if you were holding a hard-copy of the image in your hand. In other words, assume the visual image is copyright protected until you have information proving otherwise.
WHEN CAN YOU RE-USE TWEETS THAT ARE COPYRIGHT-PROTECTED
If you determine that copyright does protect the tweets you want to use, circumstances under which you can use those tweets include the following:
You Can Use Copyright-Protected Tweets If Twitter Says You Can Use Them
When a person posts to Twitter, the person does retain ownership of his/her tweets. However, via the Twitter Terms of Service, the person gives Twitter “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license” to re-use his/her tweets in any way Twitter wants. That means Twitter can stream or share the tweets with other online and offline outlets – and it means Twitter may allow others to do the same.
Twitter, in fact, uses its license in posted tweets to encourage other outlets to re-use tweets and incorporate tweets into other media. Twitter has policies allowing others to embed tweets into blogs and websites (using the Embed Tweet command found on every Tweet) and re-use tweets in broadcast productions. You do not need to contact Twitter for permission to use tweets in this way as long as your use complies with its written policies for Embedding a Tweet on your website or blog, Guidelines for using Tweets in broadcast, or other Twitter policy relevant to your use.
Caveat about Visual Images. The permission from Twitter allows you to display any visual images included in the tweet as part of your re-use of the entire tweet. It does not allow you to strip visual images out of the tweet and use those visual images independently of the tweet. The Washington Post, Agence France and Getty Images learned this lesson the hard way when they were sued and lost a copyright infringement lawsuit for publishing and distributing photos of the Haitian earthquake uploaded to Twitter by Photojournalist Daniel Morel 2013.
You Can Use Copyright-Protected Tweets if Your Use Qualifies as a Fair Use
Depending on how and why you use the tweet(s), the fair use exception to copyright protection may apply. Unfortunately, fair use determinations are very subjective and case-specific. There is no bright line rule that tells you when something does or does not qualify as a fair use.