Quora & Authorship

As a matter of contract, you may own your literary output on Facebook, but good luck pulling it back out for the purpose of publishing it anywhere else.

That's part of Facebook's design. Instead of opening out to the wider web, Facebook wants to be the widest web. Easy to enter - impossible to skedaddle.

There's been griping about how hard Twitter makes it to export content, but Twitter is in fact more amenable to authorial reclamation than Facebook. Twitter may not directly provide you with an export tool the way, say, this TypePad blogging platform does. But a person's tweets can take the form of an RSS stream. Even the official Twitter iPhone app allows you to e-mail your tweets. Unlike things I post to Facebook, I can link to individual tweets. And third-party apps exist to help you backup your tweets.

69005925_981bfde984How will Quora deal with this essential question of content portability?

We wordsmiths care about what happens to the words we cobble together. We disavow that central insight of deconstructionist literary theory, namely, that the best of us are at best scriveners. We even believe that the "user" in the phrase "user generated content" may be an author, embodying all the romantic self-regard and paranoia associated with that approbation.

If authors are to put as much effort into Quora as their own books, columns, dispatches or posts (presumably more effort than one puts into Facebook, if not necessarily, depending on the tweeter, more effort than some put into tweets), they are going to want to have better control over Quora UGC than Facebook allows or Twitter facilitates.

Quora's terms of service duly state that you retain ownership of your Quora content. That's a good place to start, but that's standard. Quora also takes a license from you (also standard).

Digging a bit deeper, I notice that the user's license in her content also extends to other Quora users, giving them a broad right to modify her content - but only within the Quora environment (more on that below). Interestingly, Quora itself does not seem to have license to copy-edit the content of your content; its license to modify appears limited to what may be necessary to adapt your content for different networks or media.

Now here's the bit from Quora's TOS that covers how you get your content back out of Quora.

"Subject to these Terms, Quora gives you a worldwide, royalty-free, non-assignable and non-exclusive license to re-post any of the Content on Quora anywhere on the rest of the web provided that the Content was added to the Service after April 22, 2010, and provided that the user who created the content has not explicitly marked the content as not for reproduction, and provided that you: (a) do not modify the Content; (b) attribute Quora with a human and machine-followable link (an A tag) linking back to the page displaying the original source of the content on quora.com (c) upon request, either by Quora or a user, remove the user's name from Content which the user has subsequently made anonymous; (d) upon request, either by Quora or by a user who contributed to the Content, make a reasonable effort to update a particular piece of Content to the latest version on quora.com; and (e) upon request, either by Quora or by a user who contributed to the Content, make a reasonable attempt to delete Content that has been deleted on quora.com."

Two notable things here:

  1. you can pull out for re-posting, not only your own content, but anyone else's, too (subject to the detailed conditions); and
  2. once you take the Quora content of others off-premises, so to speak, you can no longer modify it. 

Making it all add up: When you export the content of others on Quora - and the terms expressly say you can do this - you must republish it in the form on which it is found on Quora; but as the owner of your own content, presumably you can remix it, adapt it, edit it, change it at will, either on or off the Quora platform.

And while your content is on its platform, Quora reserves the right to monetize your content as it wishes, presumably without sharing proceeds with you.

"In consideration for Quora granting you access to and use of the Service, you agree that Quora and its third party providers and partners may place such advertising on the Service or in connection with the display of Content or information from the Service whether submitted by you or others."

Let's remember that such a policy is not in the very nature of things - it should be possible for a social media service to share revenue with content creators - but this arrangement does seem to be the default of the bigger players.

It's exciting how Quora appears to be catching on fast. That means it may well offer new ways to think about user generated content and the power and control over its exploitation.

Image by Olivander, used under Creative Commons license terms.

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