Tweets and Copyright Law Protection

By Harris, Lesley Ellen | Information Outlook, November-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Tweets and Copyright Law Protection


Harris, Lesley Ellen, Information Outlook


Who owns a tweet? Do you need permission to retweet a tweet? As with so many areas in copyright, these questions are not easily answered.

As you probably know, Twitter is a free social networking site that allows users to post 140-character messages known as tweets. Each Twitter user's tweets are automatically shared with other users who have signed up to receive tweets from that user; the tweets can also be viewed by visiting the user's site (unless the tweeter is using privacy controls available through Twitter.)

Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has become an enormously popular avenue for sharing information, including political and marketing content. The volume of messages sent on Twitter is staggering. According to Internet Live Stats, somewhere around 500 million tweets are sent each day. In fact, as I write this column at just past noon on a weekday, more than 360 million tweets have already been sent today!

Is a Tweet Protected by Copyright?

My interest in Twitter has nothing to do with numbers; my interest lies in copyright and, specifically, whether tweets are protected by copyright law. A short poem, a sketched image and a document saved on my hard drive are all eligible for copyright protection in the United States, but are my tweets protected as well?

As it turns out, there is not a straightforward answer to this question (no surprise when it comes to copyright matters!).

The U.S. Copyright Act protects literary works. Literary works are defined as "works, other than audiovisual works, expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books, periodicals, manuscripts, phonorecords, film, tapes, disks, or cards, in which they are embodied."

The law does not protect names of products, services or businesses, titles of works, catchphrases, mottos or slogans, or short phrases. In also does not protect ideas or concepts--in fact, the Copyright Act specifically states, "In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

So, where does that leave a tweet? And does it matter if the tweet is 30 characters or 120 characters in length?

Can 11 Words Be Protected by Copyright?

The European Community recently considered a case involving Infopaq International, a company that was summarizing information it gleaned from Danish daily news sources. Infopaq was then e-mailing the 11-word summaries to its customers. Danske Dagblades Forening, representing the Danish news publishers, claimed that consent was required for Infopaq to use those summaries.

In evaluating the claim, the European Union Court of Justice (Fourth Chamber) acknowledged that words themselves do not merit protection. The court found, however, that those 11 words comprised an original work that merited protection. The court held that "... the reproduction of an extract of a protected work which ... comprises 11 consecutive words thereof ... such as to constitute reproduction in part within the meaning of Article 2 of Directive 2001/29, if that extract contains an element of the work which, as such, expresses the author's own intellectual creation . …

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