I do own the copyright on this, right?
BY NEIL STEINBERG email@example.com November 27, 2012 5:56PM
Updated: December 29, 2012 6:16AM
V anitas vanitatum, Ecclesiastes reminds us, omnis vanitas.
Or “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Vanity, as in excessive self-love, is a common if not universal human failing. We imagine ourselves to be big deals, but we’re not.
People vaporize hours creating these elaborate electronic shrines to themselves, stuffed with photos of themselves, their loved ones, their pets, their favorite quotes, their music. I’m as guilty of this as anybody, guiltier, though in my defense: a) the paper told us to join, placing our hands upon the electronic narcotic and b) while I certainly jab at Facebook with the focused frenzy of an addicted rhesus monkey pressing the lever for more cocaine, I tell myself it’s marketing, the idealized Big Important Columnist Online Paper Doll I snip out and dress up and walk through his Big Important Day for the amusement of my thousands of Facebook quasi-friends. It’s fun, and part of my job.
At least I’m not alone. A billion others use Facebook. As with any mass of humanity, there are periodic manias, social rashes that break out and spread, epidemics of group behavior rippling across its hidden servers, such as the fad that — yes, it’s true, I admit it — caused the aforementioned Latin phrase to pop into my mind, sparked by the posting of utterly vain (“vanity,” remember is from the Latin vanitas, meaning “empty”) boilerplate statements declaring Facebook users have copyright ownership over their musing and photographs. The statement begins:
“In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos, etc. . . . For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!”
What stopped me cold about this was, a) the self-flattering notion that Facebook, or anybody for that matter, would ever want to sell the hurried photo you posted of your plate at dinner and b) the spite required for you to try to stop them if you can, because, dammit, it’s your photo. And c) the utter ignorance of the law in evidence here.
You sign your rights away to Facebook when you join. Or, to quote the actual, as opposed to imaginary, Facebook guidelines: “You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).”
Hoping to alter this by posting an after-the-fact declaration is like nailing a notice on your door that the mortgage you signed is no longer $1,500 a month, but $150. Nice try.
Still, you have to marvel at such a pairing of ego and spite — I want you all to admire my new kitty, but if you hope to use it in your Kittens of Facebook 2013 electronic calendar I want my cut.
What’s interesting is that people re-posted the copyright statement, despite suspecting it was meaningless. Dave Weinert, of Oak Lawn, tossed it up with a glib, “On the off chance that this is legimate [sic] and will count for more than a hill of beans.”
I feel guilty quoting from somebody’s Facebook page, because though Facebook is public, there is an implication that what you post will remain within the enormous playpen that is Facebook. Many a neophyte has skewered his or her employment chances by posting a Facebook photo of bleary late night beer pong that isn’t nearly as wacky when examined by a prospective employer.
Facebook is clear about what to expect about your postings: “When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you.” Sorry, Dave, read the fine print.
Copyright law is complex, but the key thing you should take away is that Congress keeps changing it to both benefit big corporations and to screw you. Mickey Mouse should have been in the public domain years ago, but laws were changed and will continue to be. So while Facebook can milk your life for cash, you can’t paint Mickey’s face on the wall of your preschool without fear that the Mouse’s lawyers will come get you. Or put it another way — if you want the waiters in your diner to sing “Happy Birthday to You,” you will owe money to AOL Time Warner, which owns the rights to the song, written in 1893, still collects some $2 million a year off it, and will until 2030, if not beyond.
Speaking of making money off creativity, my new book, “You Were Never in Chicago,” has gone into a second printing. In my quest for a third, I will be reading and signing this Thursday, Nov. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Book Bin, in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook. If you can’t make that, there will also be a signing at the Book Stall in Winnetka the Thursday following, on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.