Does this sound familiar?
You walk over to your computer and boot it up. Crap. You need to promote the short story you just sold to a really, cool anthology. You don’t really have a lot of time, so you don’t want to post about it on your website. You figure you’ll just do that when you get around to it. So, you open up Facebook, play a couple of rounds of Farmville, then write a quick note and update your status. Immediately you feel better, like you’ve accomplished something. Now you just need to sit back and wait to see how many of your friends notice…
Although the internet is filled with tools to publish and produce stories, blog posts, images, etc. not every tool is creator-friendly. In this case, I’m not talking about copyright. Instead, I’m talking about something much, much more frightening. Many places that you post your words online–including Facebook–spell out the fact that you do not own your own content. What’s worse, in some cases you rescind your rights even after you delete your content.
Why does this matter? Writers, artists, photographers, illustrators, musicians, etc. make a living not only by the creation of original content, but by its distribution. For people like us, our words are valuable because it’s what we get paid to do. In other words–your content is your greatest treasure.
Think about it another way. Let’s say you’re developing a patch of real estate that you’ve assigned a dollar value to. The only problem is, you don’t know the best place to put it. Do you build your dream house out in the country where no one can get to it easily? Sure, you may own that property, but it’ll be harder for people to visit you. Do you decide it’s too expensive to build, so you decide to rent an older house downtown? Or, do you build a rental property and lease it out to anyone who wants to stroll right in?
Online, the idea of owning your content may be a little foreign to you, especially in an age where people can grab and easily share what you’re posting. Here’s what I recommend:
Five Steps To Ensuring You Own Your Content
1) Post your vital content on a domain that you own – Have a LiveJournal account? Blogspot? Whether you care to admit it or not, your words are at the whim and mercy of those sites. So, if for whatever reason, they go down, get hacked or disappear then all your hard work will go away as well.
2) Read and understand the terms of service – Most websites have a terms of service that spells out what your rights are. While a TOS can (and does) change, a company’s track record is a good indication of how far they’re willing to go with your content. Read the fine print very carefully, because many internet policies are not geared to protect creative professionals.
3) Back up your content, regardless – I have a LiveJournal account that I periodically back up to a domain that I own. Why? I’m not looking for readers, in this case. What I’m looking for is the assurance that I have a copy of what I’ve written online in a place I control. You may decide to back up your content in an offline location. For me, I keep it online and backed up on my server just in case disaster strikes. Exercise your Google Fu and type in combinations of words like “back up + keyword.” You’ll quickly discover there are several tools that can help.
4) Have a plan when/if you terminate your account – Vacation, change of jobs, illness, new tools, etc. There’s tons of reasons why you might cancel your account with any site that allows you to share and post your content online. Do you have a plan when you do? You might want to review the company’s terms of service to see what their cancellation policy is. Then, you might want to figure out a way to notify your connections when you do and preserve all your content.
5) Visualize your digital footprint – Imagine waking up one day and finding out you’ve been sued for a Tweet you wrote ages ago or an off-handed comment you made on a newspaper website. More often than not, you’ll hear about these sorts of things in the news because the legal system hasn’t caught up to the internet yet. In many ways, every thing that you do online leaves a digital footprint. The content that you post online doesn’t just get shared, it gets tracked by website analytics packages, search engines, etc. For writers, this is especially important since some publishers consider posting the first draft of a short story to the internet as “first publication.” A few people have lost rights because they posted their story online to get feedback before they gave it to a publisher.
To be clear: I am not trying to scare you nor am I advocating a hard and fast rule for the distribution of your content online. What I’m suggesting, is that you develop an insurance policy and understand what you’re agreeing to before you post. Take a good look at where you are publishing your most valuable asset and, from there, decide what words you’re comfortable owning, renting or leasing.