Social media platforms are governed by a myriad of ever-changing terms and conditions.  Simply by signing up to and continuing to use these platforms, individual and corporate users accept these terms, sometimes granting very broad licenses to platform operators and their affiliates to do what they will with user content.  Not only are these terms difficult for individual and corporate users to follow and keep track of, they have the capacity to cause confusion.  This is illustrated by the following hoax, which took off in quite a frenzy last week.

The hoax consists of a fake, lengthy, quasi-legal-sounding disclaimer which a person is supposedly ‘required’ to publish as a status update in order to protect the control of their personal information, and content shared on Facebook.  The post attempts to enforce the user’s ownership over all content, images and personal details posted on the site, and to prohibit Facebook from reproducing such content for a commercial purpose without written permission.

Let’s have a look at the full text of what it says:

In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos etc (as a result of the Berner* Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!

(Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their Facebook Wall. This will place them under protection of copyright laws. By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-308-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute**).

Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates. Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their Facebook Wall; this will place them under protection of copyright laws.

* In reality, the Berner Convention appears to be an incorrect spelling of the Berne Convention

** The Rome Statute is a UN treaty invoking the International Criminal Court with the jurisdiction to prosecute international war crimes (equally, citing the US Uniform Commercial Code is ineffective)

Unfortunately – though perhaps a marginal improvement on tweets about what one ate for lunch – re-posting this disclaimer has little meaningful legal significance. 

Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) (which users accept by signing up to and continuing to use the Facebook platform) states that while you own copyright in content posted on or in connection with the site, you grant Facebook a wide-ranging license (one that is ‘non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free and worldwide’). Beyond this license, the only control the user maintains over their content is through adjustment of privacy settings, or content deletion. These policies don’t exist on an opt-out basis; the only choice the user has is to accept them – or opt-out of Facebook altogether.

Facebook has confirmed all of this information in a Fact Check published in response to the hoax.  We also enjoyed Conan O’Brien’s parody hoax status, weighing in on the ordeal – see it here.

But why has this hoax gone viral?  It certainly offers an interesting insight into human behaviour, and the effect of fancy sounding language (perhaps it was ‘communiqué’… ) on people’s psyche.    At IP Whiteboard, we have debated whether people sought to understand what the text actually meant.  If so, why the sudden concern to protect copyright?  Or did people just respond to the recommendation to post the notice without thinking twice?

Also, why now?  The hoax is not new, but is a rehash of one which went viral in May this year after Facebook was publicly listed.  See the comparisons here.

This time, the hoax appears to have been prompted by suggested changes to Facebook’s privacy policy and SRR last week, which propose (amongst other things):

  • new tools for managing Facebook messages;
  • changes to the current process of making privacy policy changes; and
  • data-sharing with Facebook affiliates.

Facebook’s proposed changes are certainly interesting and may have some impact on users (which we will post about separately).  However, a person who posts the status update is in exactly the same position as the person who does not. 

As to the motive of the instigator, well, we can only speculate.  Perhaps it was a person with an uncanny knack for legal jargon engaging in an interesting social experiment.  Or just someone with an axe to grind.

For now, the fact that many Facebook users can’t tell the difference between a hoax and a real alteration to their legal rights suggests that public knowledge of rights regarding social media is unconvincing.   We simply suggest they update their Legal Relationship Status to: it’s complicated.