Facebook has been overrun over the past few days with users’ “declarations” about their supposed copyright and privacy rights. Dozens of my own Facebook friends have re-posted the same message, and others are wondering aloud if this is something they need to be doing, too. So do these boilerplate declarations accomplish anything, other than fueling the frenzy?
Short answer: “No.”
Now for the longer explanation.
Here’s the most common example of these declarations:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!
By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-308-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute).Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates.
Plenty of websites, including the popular resource Snopes, have labeled this message for what it is: “false,” a “hoax,” or a “scam.” I actually prefer the term I read on a friend’s Facebook wall earlier today: “hogwash.” But it’s one thing to label it as such; it’s another to understand why that is.
- “In response to the new Facebook guidelines” — what “new” guidelines? And how do those “guidelines” affect your rights? The lack of specificity here is telling, especially since declarations like this have been circulating for months.
- “I hereby declare … By the present communiqué” — Be suspicious of advice that says you get to unilaterally “declare” what your rights are vis-a-vis others. Phrases like that, and awkward words like “communique,” are hallmarks of militias and conspiracy buffs, not bona fide legal documents.
- “my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc.” — Well, yeah–mostly. A fundamental premise of U.S. copyright law is that copyright protections automatically vest in the author of a creative work as soon as the work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” (in other words, when it is created). Each of these listed examples are the types of creative expression to which copyright applies–except “personal details,” whatever that means. Presumably this refers to factual data about the Facebook user, such as their name, age, location, and so forth. Such facts, ideas, and concepts are not creative expression and therefore are not subject to copyright protection. Although there are distinct legal advantages to copyright notices and federal copyright registrations, a declaration on Facebook is not a prerequisite to obtaining copyrights, and no amount of declaration will create copyright protection in non-expressive works.
- “as a result of the Berner Convention” — Obvious typos are another hallmark of a scam. Whoever originated this meme apparently meant the Berne Convention, an international treaty dating back to 1886 and that the United States joined in 1988. The trouble for Facebook declarants is that the Convention doesn’t create any rights that a U.S. citizen can directly enforce in court; rather, it set certain norms that Congress met by tweaking certain U.S. statutes. Americans’ rights are still governed by American law.
- “The content of this profile is private and confidential information” — then why are you posting it for hundreds of people to read? Again, it’s easy to make statements like this, but the degree to which your content is “confidential” is primarily a function of the privacy settings you choose.
- “Facebook is now an open capital entity” — In other words, a publicly traded corporation, as opposed to a privately held company. This is actually great news for privacy advocates, because public companies are subject to regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, must make their privacy investigations public, and must answer to their shareholders for unpopular abuses of user privacy. The only people suffering as a result of Facebook going public are those who bought shares at their initial, inflated price.
- “you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates” — There’s nothing tacit about it. How your information gets shared is governed by your privacy settings and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. I guarantee that Facebook will not search your Wall for a “copyright declaration” before deciding what to do with your stuff. And isn’t sharing of photos and status updates exactly what social media is designed for?
- “All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once …” Ah, there it is. The one crucial element of every spammy Facebook status trend–guilt-tripping you into reproducing it. That’s the only thing that gets the message in front of enough eyeballs to get people talking about it. Some 14-year-old kid in Romania, or disgruntled separatist in a backwoods cabin, or whoever first dreamed up this manifesto is doubtless overjoyed by the amount of attention his creation has received. But that’s the only good it has accomplished.
Or is it? Perhaps this is actually a teachable moment for our social media-fueled society. An opportunity to stop and think before we post, and to resist jumping on every chain-letter bandwagon that comes along.
If you agree, then let me encourage you–at the risk of violating my own 10th rule–to share a link to. or comment on, this post. Get your friends thinking and talking about these issues, not just parroting what they read on someone else’s status update. Declare your right to think critically.