Reddit explains new Terms of Service, responding to user concerns

reddit-alienWho owns what you create online?

In this age of social online services, we produce a lot of content. Every comment, photo, video you share is being stored on a server far away from you. Depending on where you share, you may or may not actually own the media you make. Take Facebook for example, it’s even become popular with Facebook users to post their own legalese renouncing Facebook’s control over their property. Though signing up for Facebook means you agreed to their Terms of Service, and such moves are pretty much bunk (Snopes).

Social news site Reddit recently updated their terms of service, and during any transition, users grow concerned about changes to the platform they invest so much time in. One passage in particular generated a lot of discussion:

By submitting User Content to reddit, you grant us a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, perform, or publicly display your User Content in any medium and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so.

This has become standard boilerplate in our agreements online, but what does it actually mean? Reddit Moderator Yishan replied:

Ah yes!

The key here is that when you post something to a website, we need the right to display that content. The act of displaying it constitutes “reproducing” your work, and many of the actions (thumbnailing, quoting for previews or summaries, etc) may constitute preparing derivative works.

You end up seeing this claim everywhere and it is packed with pretty intimidating legal terms so I want to parse it down. The individual components mean this:

  • royalty-free: we don’t have to pay you to display the post/comment that you posted on reddit.
  • perpetual: the right to display what you posted doesn’t disappear after some specified time.
  • irrevocable: once you posted it, you can’t just say “hey wait, no, you can’t display that.” (In practice though, we allow you to delete it, but in case we do not successfully delete it or remove it fast enough, we wouldn’t want there to be legal liability associated with that)
  • non-exclusive: THIS IS IMPORTANT – non-exclusive means that you retain the rights to what you posted, i.e. you can still publish it elsewhere, and you own the copyright. We are just claiming a license to display itin addition to your own rights. This is something that has come up a lot – people often wonder when we claim such a wordy and broad license to their contributions whether they still retain rights to it: you absolutely do. You can take your own stuff and make it into a book, or republish it on your website, or anything you want. We just retain a non-exclusive license to be able to display the content you wrote on reddit.
  • unrestricted, worldwide: these rights aren’t restricted to e.g. the United States, because anyone in the world might use reddit, so we need to be able to do that in any country.
  • derivative works, copies, publicly display: as noted in another comment, thumbnails are derivative works, but e.g. we might make a shirt with some popular meme derived originally from a funny comment or something (e.g. “send photo”).
  • authorizing others to do so: we may need to pass the content through any number of service providers in the course of doing business. The biggest one is CDNs, who redistribute/cache our content through edge networks to servers closer to you in order to reduce latency and load on our origin servers.

To address the imgur question: we do not claim any such license on photography posted to imgur (though imgur probably does), we just claim the license to 1) the (text) link that you posted to it and 2) if you posted comments about it, then we need the license to display that as well.

A perfectly reasonable reply. Of course, many still had concerns regarding the usage of such language. This comes down to the “message” of Reddit, that users submit content, generate discussion, moderate topics, vote on stories, design parts of the site, and donate funds to support it. Were Reddit to start profiting off of user data directly, say like Facebook, it would be viewed as a gross betrayal of the fan base contributing so much into maintaining the service. However, servers need to stay powered and running a site as large as Reddit can’t be cheap.

Without sounding overly cynical, it might be wise to remember that if you’re not paying for a product or service, you probably are the product being sold…