It's great to share your stuff online, but beware of the rights you surrender to the hosting site you use, says Bill Thompson
Billy Bragg's music is back on MySpace, and we should all be pleased.
Protests by Bill Bragg won a change in MySpace terms
Even if you're not a fan of his jangling guitar, political sensibilities and poetry of failed relationships and broken promises - and I am - it's great to see an artist with such a long history making good use of the network to reach a new audience.
Bragg first appeared on the fast-growing networking site last October. Like many musicians he put songs online so that other users could listen to them or even add them to their home page so that others would hear them.
But in May this year all the music was taken down because, as a posting to his blog pointed out "someone who we work with was bright enough to read the small print of the MySpace terms and conditions and found that once an artist posts up any content (including songs), it then belongs to My Space and they can do what they want with it, throughout the world".
This was perhaps overstating the case, and at the time MySpace blamed what it calls "the legalese", but the terms and conditions from March this year did give it the right to "use, copy, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, store, reproduce, transmit, and distribute" anything uploaded onto the site.
This was sufficiently broad to worry any professional musician, especially one like Bragg who has carefully retained ownership of his work and knows how licences operate.
So the music was removed, and MySpace was told that its terms were not acceptable.
As a result of the comments made by Bragg and the general publicity his move generated, MySpace has done the right thing and come up with a far simpler and more defensible set of terms for using the site.
The document begins by making it clear that "MySpace.com does not claim any ownership rights" and then goes on to explain what rights you grant, and why it needs them.
For example the terms state that "without the right to publicly perform Member Content, MySpace.com could not allow Users to listen to music posted by Members".
This is a sensible approach, and it deserves credit for making the change, even if it would have been better if it had been more careful from the start.
Unfortunately MySpace isn't the only social networking company that seems to think that grabbing as many rights as it can, either because its lawyers are too lazy to come up with a decent contract or just in case it can figure out a way to make money from them in future, is the way to go.
I've just taken down a really cool film from the video-sharing service YouTube because its terms are ambiguous. It was made for the Cambridge Film Festival by director and photographer Bruce Weber, the man who photographed the Calvin Klein ads, and I'd uploaded it so that it would get a wider audience.
But since uploading grants YouTube "a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube's (and its successor's) business in any media formats and through any media channels" I don't feel comfortable putting anything of value up there any more.
So the film has gone, at least until it sees sense about what it can reasonably ask for in terms of rights.
The whole question of what rights service providers get is not new, but it has recently become more important simply because so many of us now create and upload material to networking and sharing websites.
Back in 2001 Microsoft's terms for using the Passport sign-in service that sits behind HotMail and MSN Messenger claimed rights to use any material that was sent over the network.
Many social networking sites encourage people to post music and video
It even said that Microsoft could "exploit any proprietary rights in such communication" and that "no compensation will be paid with respect to Microsoft's use of the materials contained within such communication".
As commentators like The Register's Andrew Orlowski pointed out at the time, this would mean that if you e-mailed a business plan from a HotMail account then Microsoft could take your ideas as its own. The company quickly changed the terms, and the current Passport license is much simpler and less contentious.
Yet two years later Google did the same thing with its Orkut social networking site, and now we see the next generation of services that rely on social networking and user-generated content doing the same thing. It seems the lawyers never learn.
While the details of licences and terms and conditions may not seem to matter much, copyright and the assertion of those rights are vital in all sorts of areas. If you're an unsigned band who then makes it big, do you want YouTube putting out all of your early videos on a compilation disk without having to ask you?
Nor is the argument simply about retaining copyright, since none of the services try to take it away. BBC News likes to get photos of news events from members of the public, and it makes it clear that "you still own the copyright to everything you contribute".
This sounds fine, until you realise that by sending in a picture you give the BBC the right to "publish and otherwise use the material in any way that we want, and in any media worldwide".
Retaining copyright is not enough if you've granted a licence to a large commercial company to exploit your material "in any way that we want".
A great deal of time and energy is currently going into writing the newest version of the GNU General Public License, the legal contract that sits behind a lot of the free software we all use, like the GNU/Linux operating system.
Now would seem to be a good time for those who create the material that sustains MySpace, YouTube, Orkut, MSN Spaces and all the other sites that rely on user-generated content to start thinking about what a general content license would look like.
Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet