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Who is the “Author” of This Book of Tweets?

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

This article is part of a series on publishing in the Middle East which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

By Yasmina Jraissati

On the eve of their fifth birthday, Twitter published some remarkable statistics: on average, per day users send 140 million tweets and 460,000 new accounts are opened. Without a doubt, we are living interesting times. The dematerialization of cultural products is in the process of revolutionizing the notion of the “book.” User generated content, online publishing tools and mostly social media are empowering individuals both in the virtual world and on the streets, and appear to be in the process of revolutionizing the notion of “authorship.”

Tweets from Tahrir is a book of collected Twitter posts. The publication is unprecedented and raises important questions about rights and the nature of authorship.

Earlier this month, OR Books announced the publication of Tweets from Tahrir, a book that collected the tweets from most of the active tweeters in Egypt, who greatly contributed to the revolution and to the spread of information. Colin Robinson, co-founder of OR, was quoted as saying: “The book would help preserve tweets that may have been lost or forgotten.” And he is right.

The book covers a unique period in modern Arab history, including the crucial role played by social media. In this sense, the book is a valuable testimony. However, it raises an interesting question: knowing that none of the tweeters -– the actual creators of the book’s content -– are to receive any royalties, who is the “author” of this book?

On Twitter’s terms of services, it says:

“You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”

Twitter’s short version of this clause is:

“This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same. But what’s yours is yours –- you own your content.”

So you own your content and authorize Twitter to make it available, but you also theoretically authorize Twitter, on a worldwide basis to “copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit in any and all media or distribution methods.” Presumably, this then includes books.

The relationship between you, as content producer, and Twitter, is in many ways similar to that of an author with a publisher. Except that Twitter is not exclusively licensed to use this content, that Twitter does not sell the content you’re producing, because its economic interest in this content lies elsewhere, and that you, as an author, do not receive royalties.

To make a long story short, Twitter could have sold the tweets of Tahrir to OR, and, legally at least, that would have been fine. Except that Twitter did not sell the tweets.

While in the process of producing the book, OR books did not seek Twitter’s approval. Instead, they went directly to the tweeters themselves and asked their permission. Given that one tweet is too short and usually does not reach the level of creativity required for copyrightability, at least in the US, asking for tweeters’ permission is then arguably the most that OR could do (for more on copyrights and Twitter, see Jonathan Bailey’s post.

Because tweets are not copyrightable because they are too short, the approach to the question of a tweet’s copyrightability only applies in a quantitative fashion and appears to be relatively straightforward.

Yet, there remains something troubling in OR’s arrangement with Tahrir’s tweeters.

Take the example of Mujeeb Rahman, aka @MujeebJaihoon, whose travelogue was published and presented at last year’s Sharjah International Book Fair. Jaihoon’s book is a travel diary based on the tweets he had posted while travelling through India. Now, imagine that someone else had gathered Jaihoon’s tweets with his permission, made a book out of them, and sold it, without Jaihoon receiving any royalties. Yes, the situation is unusual and unlikely, as Jaihoon would probably have not consented at not receiving any royalties.

In the case of Tweets from Tahrir, the only difference is that there is not just one, but many authors. Because they are many, they cannot have the same kind of control on their common book as Jaihoon does on his. And the way OR seems to have asked for the Egyptian tweeters’ permission, “Would you be happy to be part of this book?” as one of the tweeters confirmed, hints at it. The question implies that no individual is irreplaceable, and that the book, which covers a historical event, exists independently of an individual tweeter’s permission. The line of reasoning is that no single tweeter is necessary and sufficient for the book to exist. It omits that they jointly are.

Again, approaching the question from a quantitative angle misses an important point: bringing individual voices into existence on the web is all that Twitter is about. As the web is more and more about user generated content, every little counts – and can count tremendously. Even if by traditional standards the length of the tweet makes it not copyrightable most of the time, one single tweet does have some value, at least to the extent that tweets compiled together can lead to a book worth $12 on the market. In the same way, every individual tweeter’s 140 characters should be perceived as an original contribution.

Tweets from Tahrir is a good example of the limits that the traditional legal framework, in which books have been produced for centuries, seem to have reached. The web made it possible to create a book with interesting and valuable content, but with no author — in the traditional sense — to exist. This should not lead to our ignoring the author’s rights, but to a revision of our understanding of authorship.

As Twitter has empowered individuals on the web, there is a need for other forms of licenses and copyright laws to be developed to frame their productions. Perhaps the kind of licenses developed by the Creative Commons association are a good place to start:

Creative Commons licenses are roughly based on a commonsensical idea of fairness and protection of rights owners, while at the same time not preventing sharing, modification, re-use, and profitability,” says Pierre El Khoury, copyright lawyer and professor of law, member of the Creative Commons community of Lebanon. The core idea is that the author is always credited for his content and is the one to ultimately decide how his content can be used. For example, I, as an author can decide if people are allowed to re-use or modify my content. I can decide if my content can be shared commercially or non commercially. I can also impose on the person who uses my content to share her content under the same license. So for instance, if my content is published under a “non commercial” and “share alike” license, the person who uses the content I produce cannot sell it, and must also use a “non commercial” and “share alike” license.

Clearly, if such a “non commercial, share alike” license was used in the case of Twitter, a book like Tweets from Tahrir would not have seen the light of day, unless it was not sold, but shared, and the profit made indirectly, in other ways. But with revolutions taking place in Tahrir Square as well as in the publishing industry, surely there is room for new ways of fairly producing and profiting from written content. A persistent, if fuzzy idea of fairness suggests that either all contributors to an original work make a direct profit, or no one does.

Yasmina Jraissati is the president of the Paris-based RAYA, a literary agency which specializes in Arabic language writers.

DISCUSS: Should Tweeters Be Compensated for Contributions to Books?

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6 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I strongly disagree that tweets are not copyrightable. There is no minimum length for copyrightable content; it need only be original and not trivial. A contrary rule would make every haiku non-copyrightable. (I speak as someone who devotes far too much time and creativity to crafting book reviews in 140 haiku-like characters.)

  2. Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    As long as OR collected permission slips then it’s fine with me. On the other hand, publishing content from a public site may open up a can of worms.

  3. B. Thomas
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    A more noble way to address this issue is for all monetary gain from book sales should be put into a trust or donated to a charity devoted to aiding the martyrs’ families. Many of them had children and were the main financial resource in the family.

  4. Posted March 17, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I agree with B. Thomas. Perhaps not ALL monetary gain but a PERCENTAGE of gains – similar to what goes to authors who get their book published traditionally – and, of course, it could be devoted to a humanitarian aim, explicitly made at the time of requesting permission from Tweeters contributing to the project (or book as in this case). This would be fair as it would recognize that the editor of the book has put something into it as well: organization of the tweets, design choices for the cover and page layout etc etc, not to mention the cost of book marketing and distribution.

  5. Posted March 19, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I second B. Thomas while applauding Claude Forthomme, as it is not a random collection of a few tweets but a book entirely based of tweets.
    At the same time I very much applaud Orr Publisher for the initiative. This is a book for generations to come as well as for the rebels’ generation – to enpower their upcoming struggle, which is far from being resoved.

  6. Jane
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    It would have been much easier for OR if they’d sourced tweets from the identi.ca platform (since each account holder can license their messages under a Creative Commons Attribution licence). Many people on Twitter are feeding directly in from their identi.ca accounts anyway.

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