Who Legally Owns Your Tweets

By Aron Solomon

I started thinking about this lost in a Twitter black hole about the future Trump Presidential Library. As the meme goes, people like to poke fun at him because while other presidents eventually have an important library of materials to memorialize their presidency, the outgoing 45th President of the United States has tweets.

A lot of them.

President Trump has tweeted over 30,000 times since becoming a candidate to become president in 2015. His account currently has just under 87 million followers. As you can imagine, this has taken a significant amount of time over his one term as president.

If you appreciate how social media works, a Twitter account with 87 million followers is a valuable digital asset. The value comes from two sources: the tweets themselves and the followers.

For any social medium – Twitter in this example – having close to 100 million people follow an account is absolutely massive. This means that close to 100 million people are regularly visiting your platform, in part, to view this person’s tweets.

So, if they’re coming to see what President Trump is saying on Twitter, the tweets themselves are a form of digital currency.

But who owns President Trump’s tweets, and, for that matter, who owns yours?

Like anything else you write, you can actually copyright your tweets.

A tweet is protected by copyright if:

1. The content is original to its author, meaning the expression cannot be copied from someone else, and it must possess at least a minimal amount of creativity. So if President Trump sends a tweet that lists the names of the 6 ideologically conservative justices who now sit on the Supreme Court, that doesn’t clear the creativity bar. Yes, if President Trump were to analyze from his perspective which of those judges are the best and worst justices and why, these opinions would clear the bar to allow this to be a copyrighted tweet.

2. The tweet contains something more than simply a name, single word, or short phrase, since these are not protected by copyright law. While some have complained that the 140 (now 280) character limit on a tweet dramatically limits how much original thought can be communicated in a tweet, it is now commonplace to string tweets together in a series, often known as a tweetstorm.

But the fundamental question remains as to whether you would own the copyright to your tweet or Twitter would.

Twitter’s Terms of Service state that as a user you:

…retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services.

What’s yours is yours — you own your Content (and your photos and videos are part of the Content)….

While you own the copyright, you are granting Twitter an irrevocable license to use your content, by making “it available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same.” This is the entire nature of how the service works: You tweet, someone likes and retweets your tweet, someone else sees it on their feed and retweets it as well. This is, when you think about it, not only Twitter granting an ability to other users to use your content, it’s essentially allowing them to share a kind of a transactional and temporary copyright.

Part of the notion behind copyright is that you are copyrighting something of value. Many skeptics still believe that Twitter is little more than an art project, a useless digital pool in which to wade away the hours.

Yet imagine if Mr. Trump left Twitter and went to a competitor, such as Parler. Parler, while founded in 2018, has only very recently begun to significantly grow. Parler differentiates itself from Twitter as being an online locus for free speech, read: right-wing people who want a pretty much unedited place to communicate often false and potentially dangerous theories and worldviews. Parler has been in the news a lot these past week, most recently for having received investment from the Mercer family to position the company for what they expect to be exponential growth.

Without regard to how one might feel about Parler, which has recently been publicly touted on live TV as the new Twitter by personalities such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, one feature that Parler has and Twitter doesn’t is the ability to give a financial “tip” to the person creating these micro-messages.

Let’s imagine that President Trump decided to leave Twitter for Parler and his followers migrated along with him Next imagine if he can motivate them to donate/”tip” on average only $1 per year per follower. With a natural rate of growth as the platform scales, that could quickly equate to a revenue stream for Mr. Trump of $100 million per year, not even counting how Parler could add value in many circles to the brand that is the Trump name.

Expect more and more dialogue around this issue in the coming months, especially as some pundits believe that Mr. Trump’s next endeavor might be founding a media company. Imagine the immediate value of his tweets, followers, and brand goodwill to this new company and whether any potential legal dispute could arise over who owns the intellectual property he has created to date on social media.

About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon is the Senior Digital Strategist for NextLevel.com and an Adjunct Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

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