I was recently invited to contribute to a popular online writing community. You may know of it, many in the #FridayFlash community have guest posted on Johanna Harness’ wonderful site, #AmWriting. It has been on hiatus for a bit while she has been redesigning it, and I am quite pleased to hear of its imminent reemergence. I wish Johanna all the success in the world with her new and improved site.
But I am not writing about #AmWriting here, though I’ve probably successfully tricked you into thinking I am. No, I’m writing about terms of service, Wolfram Alpha, 2 plus 2, and assignment of rights.
Stay with me now, all this stuff ties in, I promise.
When Johanna sent out her invite she mentioned how she thought long and hard as to which web-based service to go with and how fleeting such services can be. In fact she included this link, Timeline of Popular Internet Services, from Wikipedia. She eventually settled on one and said if I was interested in accepting her invite I should follow the link to sign up for a account on it.
Don’t worry, nothing untoward or painful here. The TOS and PP (that doesn’t sound good, does it?) were pretty straight forward and innocuous, though I did send her a couple of questions for clarification. She sent me a message complimenting me for actually reading these oft-ignored missives. I replied that I usually check the TOS for two things: is it going to cost me anything, and do I give away all my rights by posting on the site? In this case, no and no.
Well, with all that settled to my satisfaction I got curious and went ahead and checked out the Wikipedia article. (Remember that? I told you this all ties together.) I was scrolling through it and saw a mention of Wolfram Alpha, the “answer engine” launched in 2009 by physicist Stephen Wolfram. It brought back fond memories of giddy times at work when I and a few of my coworkers threw all sorts of questions at it to see what sorts of answers it came up with. It was pretty amazing, easy to use, and very geeky. But the odd thing about WA, if I may be so familiar, was its terms of service. It seems Woflram Alpha not only claimed ownership of their own internal code and design, as is expected, they also claimed ownership of the answers it generated. I was a bit stunned.
So, being the smart ass that I am, I asked WA to solve the following mathematical equation: 2+2 = ?
Thus, according to their TOS, Woflram Alpha now owns the number 4. Please don’t use it without their express written permission.
Of course this was probably just some boilerplate TOS they threw up without really thinking it all the way through and I’m sure they would never try to enforce the unauthorized use of the number 4. I hope not anyway, I’ve already used it three times in this post, and I don’t have deep pockets.
I have seen other Terms of Service and rights assignments that were every bit at outrageous as those at Wofram Alpha, but on websites and publications more specifically of interest to writers. The submission guidelines of one highly regarded national magazine contained a clause assigning them all publication rights in any form or medium in perpetuity. Simply for submitting. Was it an oversight? I don’t know, but when asked they did not bother to clarify.
I encountered similar terms on another popular site a few months later. I pointed out how draconian their terms were in an email. I don’t know if my email can be attributed to the change, but they have since modified their terms to give them the exclusive rights to publish and use the story for one year if the story is accepted, after which time all rights revert back to the author. If the story is not accepted you are free to do with it as you may. Now those are terms I can live with.
So, be careful when your shop a story around. Take the time to read and understand the guidelines or terms of service. Your future as an author, and the number 4, will thank you for it.