Can a Twitter user really prohibit you from republishing tweets?

Tim Cushing explains what happened when Teri Buhl, an “investigative journalist covering finance/Wall Street,” declared in her Twitter bio that “No tweets are publishable.”

A couple people who noticed the disclaimer questioned it. One of them, criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett, received bullying emails from Teri Buhl that asked “Do you carry libel insurance?” and “Do you have outside counsel, or do you represent yourself?”

The story gets longer and weirder. But the underlying issue is fascinating: Is Buhl’s claim to privacy of public tweets as absurd as it sounds?

Yes, she and anyone else retains copyright ownership of anything they post on Twitter. But more importantly they also give Twitter and all its partners and third-party developers the right to do pretty much whatever they want with it.

From Twitter’s official Terms of Service:

The Content you submit, post, or display will be able to be viewed by other users of the Services and through third party services and websites (go to the account settings page to control who sees your Content). You should only provide Content that you are comfortable sharing with others under these Terms.

… You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

Tip: This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same.

You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to … make Content submitted to or through the Services available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

That said, you should consider a couple caveats.

Embedding vs. copying: The legal rights to re-use content really only extend to Twitter, its official partners and anyone pulling tweet data through the Twitter API. So if you embed a tweet using the official Twitter-provided embed code, you should be fine. However, if you just copy and paste the text of a bunch of tweets, or download a Twitter photo and upload it to your own CMS, you may be on shakier ground. The “fair use” exceptions to copyright may still protect you depending on the circumstances, but you might have to prove it.

Private accounts: Buhl eventually made her Twitter account “protected,” so only approved followers can view her tweets. Twitter does instruct developers to consider these accounts private: “Respect the privacy and sharing settings of Twitter Content. Do not share, or encourage or facilitate the sharing of protected Twitter Content.” Tweets from protected accounts do not show up in search results and cannot be retweeted or embedded.

This screenshot shows part of Teri Buhl’s Twitter page and is republished with her permission.

Update: Buhl sent Jim Romenesko a response to the Techdirt article, saying in part: “I’d like to apologized for my knee jerk reaction … Asking fellow journos (or bloggers) not to publish my tweets is about a copyright issue for me. I make money off my words, research, and analysis as a journalist. I never print someone’s tweet in a story because 1) I didn’t get that comment from them directly 2) tweets can be changed and manipulated.”

I’m unaware of any way tweets can be changed or manipulated, other than deletion. In fact it’s easier as a writer to manipulate a direct quote that only you heard. If you alter a quoted tweet, anyone can compare it to the original.

She goes on to say “I would like to sue [Bennett] and see how copyright law relating to tweets and photos in tweets would be tested. If can afford to do it I will.”

‘I am not tweeting to get picked up’

Update 2: I spoke to Buhl by phone this afternoon to get a better sense of where she’s coming from. It helps a bit to know that she had long kept her Twitter account protected to ensure the heightened privacy she desires.

She said she unprotected the account a few months ago in reaction to a surge of follower requests. The Huffington Post had named her one of “the 25 most dangerous people in financial media” and “Frontline” featured her reporting in its “Untouchables” investigation.

“I just got lazy. I should have never unprotected it,” she said.

“I see Twitter as having a conversation, but it’s not a publication,” she said. “Especially when my tweets are protected — I am not having a public conversation. And I’m not saying things on Twitter so that somebody’s going to pick them up and go publish it. That’s not a goal. I’m not like Piers Morgan or Henry Blodget out there. I am not tweeting to get ‘picked up,’ I don’t want it to spread anywhere.”

The followers she approves for her protected account are primarily her readers, including Wall Street traders and stock researchers.

“I would talk about stories ahead of time — ‘What do you think, what’s the trend, what’s going on here, I need this answer on how this bond works.’ Every time a journalist would follow me, I would direct-message them, if I let them, and say ‘I’ll tell you right now, if I see you pick up one of my stories, you’re out of here. And I’ll probably be pretty vocal that I’m unhappy about this. So if you want to be on this feed I’d ask you to respect that.’”

Editor’s Note: At Buhl’s request, we have removed a photo from this post that originated on her Twitter page, pending further review.

Earlier: Senate staffers claimed their public tweets were off the record | How to decide what can be published, what’s private on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Carrie Black

    Well, it will actually boil down to your profile, if you got a public profile of which you will be followed and be viewed by millions, you then can’t blame your followers or twitter users in general, or you may have your account private.

  • ambreen11

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  • Joe Flood

    Ummm, maybe not even have a Twitter account if you’re worried about your precious opinions becoming public?

  • Robert Knilands

    More proof that Twitter is misused and generally a waste of energy. Except, of course, for the “reporters” who use it as a tool to beg for sources and story ideas. It’s probably invaluable to them.

  • tylerbrainerd

    Laughed out of the courtroom? Try laughed out of the lawyers office. It would never get anywhere close to the courtroom.

  • tylerbrainerd

    “Tim was asked to post that update early this am”

    Do you pay Tim’s paycheck, that you think you can order him around?

  • tylerbrainerd

    Particularly as she’s already involved in a legal case where she is under criminal investigation for publishing her boyfriends daughters private journal online, and trying to black mail her.

  • SpicyLiberal

    Oh, so your tweets when back to protected again?

    Ok…so that still makes absolutely zero difference about the stupidity of your “wanting to sue” posts.

    You keep telling us that you want to sue him yet you have yet to post a single actual reason that you would not get laughed out of the court room.

    Add in that (as someone else said) Mark is an attorney that wins a bunch, you really will just give everyone so much more press to laugh at you.

  • Lafollette

    Exactly how many characters is fair use of 140?

  • TexanPatriot2

    Ok. Had enough of this. Time to go back to bashing Sociailsts and their Marxist agenda. How did I even get here to begin with? And I can even be quoted on that!

  • Patrick Jean

    And doesn’t sharing what she’s working on with sources before it’s published seem like a conflict of interest? Does she work for her readers, or those sources?

  • SpicyLiberal

    The fact that you can’t find a single person who backs up this idiotic notion of Teri’s should show her how stupid she looks as she tries to fight a battle that the law clearly says she has no chance.

    She knows it too and will eventually fade off this once she sees the possible attorney’s fees attached….and any friends/family will shortly fade once they see the time attached to such a case.

    She has little to no legal argument to stand up against in Court and she looks petty, ridiculous, and just bratty to everyone who reads her idiotic after idiotic responses.

    Teri….do yourself a favor and just please stop trying to defend yourself on several comment sites. You seem so desperate for approval by someone….anyone….that it comes off just atrociously for you

    And please don’t tell us that it doesn’t matter because you clearly do care….no sense in playing that farce.

  • Mary Mazzocco

    Leaving aside the question of whether tweets act like she says the do, if she has a private account where certain favored traders get tips about what she’s working on, do securities laws come into play?

  • Tim Cushing

    “Tim isn’t even a full time reporter – he said he couldn’t publish a comment because he was at his day job.”

    So… you’re saying I shouldn’t be allowed to post anything on the internet and leave that to the “full time reporters?”

  • Rickey Moore

    Good luck. Mark is one of the best defence attorneys in Houston. He is highly respected and wins his fair share of cases for his clients. Sometimes it’s better to not push the red button as if you lose, it won’t look very good and might feel worse.

  • Patrick Jean

    Does she even *have* a journalism degree? From where? When? So many questions, so little vetting.

  • Teri Buhl

    actually my readers and a lot of wall street think they are

  • Teri Buhl

    I don’t think Mark Bennett used twitter’s embedding and by the time he did publish his post my tweets had been protected again.

  • Teri Buhl

    Tim was asked to post that update early this am. Tim and his editor Mike have not called me back about other inaccuracies in their re-write of other reporters news. Tim isn’t even a full time reporter – he said he couldn’t publish a comment because he was at his day job. WTF

  • Tim Cushing
  • Tim Cushing

    A new post containing Buhl’s statement (and our response) is live at Techdirt.

  • Dark Helmet

    “that was a mistake-to unlock the tweets”…this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen….

  • Will Doolittle

    It’s amazing how often journalists (I am one), who ask people all day to open up to them, are touchy to the point of looking ridiculous (Teri) about being quoted. Your Tweets are not a big deal (are anyone’s?)

  • Sean P Carr

    How utterly bizarrre.

  • Teri Buhl

    I am use to rude behavior from subjects of my reporting – no big deal – but I try not to be jerk to my readers.

  • Teri Buhl

    You’re right you’d have to go back and make sure the person really wrote that if you were quoting a re-tweet and could see their profile. In my universe a lot of twitter profiles are locked – I usually write about traders. I also had my profile locked for years and just recently opened it up at the request of readers and because it took a lot of time to screen and approve the followers. As I said to Romenesko – that was a mistake- to unlock the tweets.

  • Tatil_S

    “I would like to sue [Bennett] and see how copyright law relating to tweets and photos in tweets would be tested. If can afford to do it I will.”

    I guess she can count affordability of legal action as her first topic she gets to explore. :)

  • matthewmaurice

    I never went to J-school, but I’d think that on Day One they probably say “those of you considering ‘investigative journalism’ may want to get used to rude behavior.”

  • matthewmaurice

    True, but you can’t change the original Tweet that anyone can go back and look at, unless of course, your Twitter feed is locked.

  • Teri Buhl

    The apology was for Giddeon (not sure of his real name) who asked what I would do but he did not publish any of my tweets. I was kind of rude to him. Mark took Giddeon’s question and my tweets, photos, and went on to publish them- that is who I would like to sue.

  • Teri Buhl

    when you rt in tweetdeck you can change the letters of the person who wrote it and then add your own comment. I have done it to shorten their message with abrivations and get my extra words in

  • Larry The Wine Guy

    Maybe if people would retweet all the public tweets of these public twits, they’d get the point. If they wanted to sue everyone who did this, they would be very busy and their lawyers would be very rich.