Blown To Bits

Twitter Evolves

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Things change so fast.

People use Twitter to broadcast short text messages about what they are doing. Pretty vain, but it does have its uses — as David Pogue notes, if you’ve got a question that is hard to Google but has a simple answer, thousands of human beings may be out there, waiting to tell you the answer.

Then people started losing track of the fact that other people were actually reading what they were writing, maybe people who aren’t nice. A US Congressman forgot that his diplomatic mission to Baghdad was supposed to be secret, and that guys with guns and bombs might like to follow his movements.

Now we have people who, having splattered their 140-character-max tweets all over the place, want to assert copyright in what they’ve written. There are only 27^140 possible tweets, can I just copyright them all and then sue anybody who uses Twitter?

Seriously, I can’t think of a reason why these claims of copyright in tweets wouldn’t be valid. But who would worry if somebody passed along his or her tweet to somebody else? Isn’t twittering psychologically in the same space as opening a cage of doves, freeing them to the world?

Or hawks maybe. People are also filing libel lawsuits because they’ve been called dirty names in other people’s twittering. Hmm — certainly could be false and damaging, and certainly is communicated to third parties. Sounds like that claim could hold water too.

4 Responses to “Twitter Evolves”

  1. Daniel Says:

    These are great points, but I want to know what your opinions are: should law change, or should behavior be regulated?

    I know what Lessig would say, but I am curious to hear your thoughts on the matter spelled out in a bit more detail beyond what I think your liberal tendencies might imply (granted, I haven’t finished reading the book yet)!

    I would also like to point out that your assessment of Twitter as a service that allows people “to broadcast short text messages about what they are doing,” is a bit simplistic, and reminiscent of what the slower digital immigrants used to say about blogs and blogging. Twitter is a platform: how people use it is limited mostly by imagination.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    I think copyright law needs fixing, but not because of Twitter. Twitter just shows how over-restrictive it is.

    Here is an interesting thought experiment. Text strings are really just numbers (translate every character into its ASCII character code, and the concatenation is a binary numeral representing some positive integer). Some of those integers are copyrightable (the one representing the text of Gladwell’s “Outliers,” for example). Some aren’t (I don’t think I can claim copyright in the number 1, for example). So what is the smallest copyrightable number?

  3. Daniel Stern Says:

    Not being a lawyer or a law student, I have only some limited research to help think about the thought experiment. However, based on what I have read, there do appear to be some safeguards against the type of copyrighting described in your thought experiment.

    1. “Typically, a work must meet minimal standards of originality in order to qualify for copyright”
    – I am not sure anything 140 characters long could qualify under that standard.

    2. “Copyright law recognizes the right of an author based on whether the work actually is an original creation, rather than based on whether it is unique; two authors may own copyright on two substantially identical works, if it is determined that the duplication was coincidental, and neither was copied from the other.”
    – This grants a lot of leeway, particularly with regard to text strings in the realm of 140 characters.

    However, the thought experiment did jog a series of questions, the answers to which I do not know: When a copyright is granted, what is actually being copyrighted?

    The law states that the idea contained in a work is not copyrighted. Rather, it is the particular expression of an idea that is copyrighted. What I am uncertain about is whether the expression in question is copyrighted only in the language in which it was written, or any possible translation as well. Also, are there distinctions between computer and spoken languages?

    Since any particular work can be expressed as a binary numeral, but numbers themselves cannot be copyrighted, at what point does a number (one which can be decoded by a particular software program into a copyrighted work) transform into something that is copyrighted? Is it a violation of copyright to share the number, as distinct from the work?

  4. Link Love Monday with Cory B. | Apogee Results – The Online Marketing Authority | Austin, Texas Says:

    […] Love: Tools and their ability to make your work easier. In this case, the work we’re talking about is adding multimedia to your blog posts that can entice users to keep coming back to your blog because it’s chalk full of awesome information whether text, images or video. I took Apture on a test drive with my personal blog and found it worked well. It’s this simple: sign up, head to a blog post, highlight a word and an interface pops up that returns music, videos, maps, slideshows, Tweets, news and more related to the highlighted word. Link: Twitter Evolves […]