You publish your story, script, song or treatment on reddit, Facebook or Twitter and low-and-behold, a producer reads it and wants to sign a contract for the exclusive rights to what you wrote. Sound far-fetched, yet it happened with !@#$ My Dad Says in 2009 and again in 2011 with Rome, Sweet Rome. And, Nathan W. Pyle has a 2014 New York Times Bestseller that started from a series of animated GIFs he posted on reddit.
In July 2014, Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell released a short story 140 characters at a time on Twitter. And, Mitchell did this with the consent of his book publisher.
Is it possible the non-exclusive license you grant the social networking site when you post your story could some how keep you from getting an exclusive deal? That's the question author James Erwin and Warner Bros. pondered when Erwin signed an exclusive deal with Warner Bros. arising from several short stories Erwin posted on social sharing site reddit.
Reddit's Current User Agreement (May 15, 2014) states:
You retain the rights to your copyrighted content or information that you submit to reddit ("user content") except as described below.
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.
In short, reddit has the ability to do anything they want with what your post, so long as reddit doesn't claim an "exclusive" right in your content.
And from Twitter's User Agreement (September 8, 2014):
You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).
Tip This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same.
It sure does sound like Twitter can do anything they want with your content. Yet, there's this little "tip" sentence that says we just want to let the rest of the world see your Tweet. But, does that sentence somehow narrow the grant?
Here's what Facebook (November 15, 2013) has to say:
You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:
For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
That language really makes me think Facebook can do what they like as well with my content. It is interesting that Facebook doesn't mention text/written words, but specifically mentions photos and videos. With sufficient originality, the words you share on Facebook may also have copyright protection.
So what's the big deal if the social networking sites can grant a non-exclusive license? There are a few issues, actually. 1) Why would a book publisher or tv/film producer want to pay you for an exclusive right to reproduce or distribute your content if they will have to compete with someone that has the non-exclusive right to do the same thing? The non-exclusive license(s) may devalue your exclusive rights. 2) You may being losing control, little-by-little, over your content. Tracking down possible infringers becomes more difficult when you don't know who granted a license and when.
At the end of the day, it boils down to risk-tolerance. Is the risk that you might lose some control more powerful than the potential gain of the deal you've always dreamed of?
You might also like the post by Texas media and copyright lawyer Tamera Bennett, "Do I Need A Facebook Disclaimer?"