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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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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