Are you willing to let someone else make money out of what you invent, pay nothing and manage your reputation at will?

There are many free online services and downloadable software products that will provide a lot of value to you as a user. Free is a great attention-grabber and incentive. But have you ever actually paid attention to what is demanded of you in exchange?

I recently came across a downloadable SEO application that might be very useful in improving my site’s results. Then I took a closer look at the provider site’s Terms of Use. This section in particular caught my eye:

9. User content: This website may enable you to create, modify, transmit, upload, or submit images and other materials and information (together, “user content”). By creating, modifying, transmitting, uploading, or submitting any user content (“your user content”), you:
   a) grant us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully paid-up, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, licence to (i) use, copy, modify, distribute, transmit, broadcast, create derivative works of, publicly display and publicly perform your user content (by all means and in any media now known or hereafter developed); (ii) license, sell, rent, lease, or lend copies of your user content (and derivative works thereof); (iii) sublicense to third parties any or all of the aforementioned rights (including the right to sublicense to further third parties); (iv) use and publish your name and alias in connection with your user content as well as in connection with all advertising, marketing and promotional material that we may publish in relation to your user content; and (v) make your user content available to other users of this website for their personal use (and you permit those users to use, modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, and create derivative works of your user content in accordance with the permitted functionality of this website and otherwise as permitted by us); and
   b) acknowledge and agree that no royalties or other compensation will be paid or payable to you for your user content, or for the granting of the rights described above.

What does this mean in practice?

You guessed it. In exchange of letting you use the product they conceived, they want to use anything you conceive

  • modified in any way they see fit
  • anywhere
  • until the end of the world
  • making money out of what you thought up
  • letting their chums make money out of what you thought up
  • without paying you any compensation
  • without any credit to you
  • but using your name and content as they see fit
  • without the slightest regard for your reputation

In other words, they can use or misuse your words as they see fit, rip them out of context and profit on what you submit without any compensation. In essence you’re forfeiting all your author’s rights. Are you sure you want to sign up for something like that? And do you think they will allow you to use their product in the same way as they will use your product – your thinking?

Maybe we should redefine free. It isn’t the money alone, it is also intellectual property rights.

Personally, I have no objection to, for example, including a link to a service or software provider’s website or giving credit where credit is due in some other way. Or even donating a sum that corresponds to the value the product gives to me.

What I do object to is that something like the condition I showed above is buried so deep under “free” that the average user will probably not notice it at all, making him or her vulnerable to, for lack of a better term, intentional exploitation. Exploitation, in my book, is never a fair compensation for “free use”.

I’m sure the people who developed this particular piece of software didn’t mean it to be a prime example of totalitarian rule, but they made the mistake of letting their legal advisors formulate the essence of their service. Protecting intellectual rights is totally OK, but imposing outrageous demands on users is very much not OK.

Lesson learned: if you cherish your online reputation, don’t let your law firm dictate what you should do. Sorry guys, you just lost a potential user. The product itself was great, but the conditions totally sank it.

Have you seen similar Terms of Use? How did you react? Or do you seldom read Terms of Use links? Please share.


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