It started with an e-mail to thousands of health bloggers from Dr. Geoff Rutledge, Chief Medical Information Officer at the health website Wellsphere: “I was on a search for the best medical blogs, when I found you… I think your blog is great. I’d like to invite you to participate in the network of medical expert bloggers at Wellsphere… I offer you the opportunity to be a featured medical expert blogger for a new Wellsphere community. Members and visitors will see your postings highlighted, featured, and clearly marked as authored by a true medical expert.”
A large number of health bloggers—at least 1,500, according to Wellsphere—accepted Rutledge’s invitation. Most linked up with Wellsphere because they hoped the company would help them reach new readers. Trisha Torrey
, who writes at the blog “Every Patient’s Advocate” wrote “[W]hen Wellsphere came along, I saw it as an opportunity to maximize exposure… In fact, my blog numbers (about 4,000 people per month), doubled when my blog began to appear on Wellsphere.”
For many months, Wellsphere recruited bloggers with little controversy. However, on January 28, 2009, Wellsphere announced that the HealthCentral Network had purchased the company for an undisclosed sum. Soon after the press release hit the Web, health bloggers were up in arms. Many felt that Wellsphere took advantage of them by aggregating their content and selling it to HealthCentral Network. Others objected to Wellsphere’s terms of service agreement, which gave the company permission to redistribute and monetize bloggers’ content.
Although many health bloggers were angry at Wellsphere for selling their content to the HealthCentral Network, others were more accepting. In addition, some had little sympathy for those who had not taken time to read Wellsphere’s terms of service agreement before consenting to let the company repost blog content on its site.
Wellsphere is not the only social media company that has run into controversy regarding content ownership. The popular social network Facebook recently changed its terms of service agreement to note that after a user leaves the site, Facebook will retain some rights over content and information that the user uploaded. After much outcry, Facebook deleted the new language from its agreement and engaged its users in a discussion about the issue.
The Wellsphere and Facebook controversies illustrate how difficult it is to reconcile two opposing needs:
• The public’s growing need to quickly and easily find and share information online using social media technologies
• Technology providers’ need to run profitable businesses while protecting themselves from potential user lawsuits
The path toward resolving the thorny issue of content ownership may lie in both sides understanding and accommodating the needs of the other. Specifically:
• Site developers should recognize and clearly acknowledge that users of social media services retain rights and ownership over their content.
• Social media companies should understand that most people are not lawyers. Developing “plain English” terms of service agreements for the masses is critical.
Users of social media should recognize that, in order to continue providing valuable services, many sites need to focus on becoming (and remaining) profitable; this means that they may repurpose or redistribute site content to attract sponsorship dollars. However, these activities should be clearly spelled out to users.
There are no easy answers to the content ownership and distribution question. Despite this, it is important to foster and participate in robust debate about this issue. Only then will people come to a broad understanding and agreement about how to foster collaboration and conversation while ensuring that sites that provide useful information and technologies continue to function.
Do you read the terms of service agreement for blogs and other social media sites before posting content? As the user-generated content business model gains popularity, will members demand to be compensated in some way when sites capitalize on the traffic generated by members of the community?
Fard Johnmar is the founder of Envision Solutions, LLC, a full-service healthcare marketing communications consulting firm. Visit www.envisionsolutionsnow.com to learn more about the company and the services it offers.