Mar 252012
The law applies online to social media and other web services

Social media site Pinterest was recently caught in one of the ongoing quandaries of social media – the ownership of content.

The subject is tricky; social media sites rely on a vibrant community of users posting news and interesting things for their online friends.

Unfortunately many of things social media users post are someone else’s property, so almost every service has a boilerplate legal indemnity term like Pinterest’s.

You agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.

Facebook have similar terms (clause 15.1) as do LinkedIn (clause 2.E) and Tumblr (clause 15). Interestingly, Google’s master terms of service only holds businesses liable for the company’s legal costs, not individuals.

Boilerplate terms like these are necessary to provide at least an illusion of legal protections for investors – those venture capital investors, greater fool buyers or punters jumping into the latest hot technology stock offering need a fig leaf that covers the real risk of being sued for copyright infringement by one of their users.

The risk in these terms shouldn’t be understated; by agreeing to them a user assumes the liability of any costs the service incurs from the user’s posts. Those costs don’t have to be a successful lawsuit against the service, it could be something as minor as responding to a lawyer’s nastygram or DMCA takedown notice.

Of course, none of the major social media platforms have any intention of using these indemnity terms; they know that the first time they go after a user all trust in the service will evaporate and their business collapse.

Somewhere among the thousands of social media services though there is going to be one that will pull this stunt. Strapped for cash and slapped with an outrageous claim for copyright damages, the company’s board will settle then send out their own demands to the users responsible.

Those “responsible” users – probably white, middle class folk sitting in somewhere in the US Midwest, South East England or North Island of New Zealand – will be baffled by the legal demand that requires them to file a defense somewhere obscure in California or Texas and will go to their lawyer friends.

When the lawyers tell them what it means their next step will be to their local news outlet.

The moment the story of a middle class person facing losing all their assets hits the wires is the moment the entire social media business model starts to wobble.

In many ways what the social media sites are trying to do is offset risk.

Risk though is like toothpaste. Squeeze the tube in one place and the pressure moves elsewhere.

By laying off a real risk by using legal terms the social media sites create new, even bigger risks elsewhere in their business.

The dumb thing is these terms really don’t protect the services anyway – it’s unlikely the typical social media user will have anything like the assets to cover the costs of a major copyright action by a rich, determined plaintiff.

It’s going to be interesting to see how many services still have these indemnity clauses in 12 months.

For the industry’s sake, the big players will need to have ditched these terms before that first dumb attempt to claim damages from users hits the wires.

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