Copyrights and wrongs

If you're showcasing your work within a free online community, have you read the small print? If not, do it now, says Jason Arber.

Everybody likes to have a pop at MySpace, the extraordinarily successful social-networking site. While the tabloids and other areas of the media like to give the impression that the site is full of predatory old men stalking young teens, design snobs like myself scoff at the site for its eye-dissolving layout.

A typical MySpace page is an untidy mess of links, ads, music players, bulletins, friends, featured groups and more, all held together with the elastic bands and sticky tape of crappy code. It's common to come across pages with embedded Flash and streaming media that will bring your browser to its knees, often unceremoniously crashing it and dancing on its grave.

But despite these problems, the site is a genuine phenomenon: if you don't have a MySpace account, you're a nobody. With this in mind, I too have a MySpace page. Signing up is easy, but have you taken a moment to look at the small print? I didn't.

Alerted by The Ape from apefluff.com, I checked out an article by The Association of Illustrators warning its members about MySpace's outrageous proprietary rights assertions in its terms of use. By posting virtually any content on MySpace, such as images, illustrations and music, you are granting News Corporation - MySpace's owners - "a non-exclusive, fully-paid and royalty-free, worldwide licence (with the right to sub-license through unlimited levels of sub-licensees) to use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, and distribute such content."

Unacceptable terms
Alarmingly, those words were taken from MySpace's terms, and essentially hand over the copyright for anything hosted on their servers to MySpace. This means they can take your content and do anything they like with it, such as create a stock library, without any financial remuneration to you. Even if you delete your content from their servers and close your account, MySpace retains the rights to anything of yours it finds in its back-ups. So if you have a portfolio of graphics hosted on MySpace, you should ask yourself whether that's actually the right home for them.

Sadly, this back-door rights assertion is a common problem, with design competitions and networking sites slipping it in among the terms and conditions they're pretty certain no-one reads. They may be legally entitled to do this, but are on extremely thin moral ice.

But I'd like to end on a more upbeat note. It was pointed out to me that Mojizu.com, a contemporary character-design community, had similarly sinister rights assertions in their terms and conditions. However, I exchanged emails with Jonathon Markiles, co-founder of Mojizu, who admitted that their terms were overly legalistic "and not as clear as [they] should be." A week later, new terms appeared on the site, which make it clear that the company wants to work with artists to commercialise their work, not hijack their rights.

This demonstrates that terms and conditions are not set in stone. Full marks should be awarded to Mojizu for doing the right thing, but when, if ever, will Mr Murdoch do the same?

Jason Arber is a designer and co-founder of www.pixelsurgeon.com. Email him at jason@pixelsurgeon.com.