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Cool yo jets, Tumblr: the mothership isn’t actually assimilating you.
Tumblr caused an accidental mass panic over the weekend when it unveiled new Terms of Service. Thanks to the complicated dynamics of reblogging third-party content, fear that the site was exercising copyright control over users’ works caused the Internet equivalent of a mass stampede.
At the root of the uproar is a new part of Tumblr’s TOS called the Subscriber Content License. Although the TOS explicitly says that users retain ownership of their intellectual property, the subscriber content license essentially says that users grant Tumblr the right to do a number of things with their content.
Enter Tumblr user psychfacts, who broadcast an alarm about the updated Terms as a reason for Tumblr users to be very, very afraid:
or even creative ideas that you post can, and will be exploited without your knowledge or consent if you do not have a copyright on them.
The changes do not come into effect until Feb. 9th, 11:59 pm eastern time. We have until then to boycott this change and to force tumblr/yahooo to revoke their sneaky little addition to the fine print.
There’s just one problem with all this righteous outrage: it’s not true that Tumblr is seeking to “own” users’ works. Under U.S. law, all intellectual property is the copyright of the creator by default, even if you don’t have a copyright claim on file. In fact, right above the subscriber content license is the most crucial part of the Terms:
“Subscribers retain ownership and/or other applicable rights in Subscriber Content… You retain ownership you have of any intellectual property you post to Tumblr.”
It’s easy to see how Tumblr users got confused, because what Tumblr does by enabling reblogs is confusing anyway. Reblogging allows other people to use, remix, and respond to your content in droves, along with the not-so-obvious: taking your work and putting it on their own blog as if it were their own content. Reblogging is a tricky entity, requiring a highly specific kind of legalese.
But nowhere among the mouthful of rights users grant to Tumblr when they upload things to the site—including the right to “use, host, store, cache, reproduce, publish, display (publicly or otherwise), perform (publicly or otherwise), distribute, transmit, modify, adapt (including, without limitation, in order to conform it to the requirements of any networks, devices, services, or media through which the Services are available), and create derivative works of” said content—does Tumblr say it wants to take users’ work and sell it for profit.
Despite the errors in the warning, psychfacts’ post spread like wildfire among panicked Tumblr users, who continued to misconstrue the terms as a violation of copyright. “The legalese is basically a great big ol’ FUCK YOU,” wrote Tumblr user an-imaginary-soldier, in a now-deleted but widely reblogged branch of the post that purported to be an analysis of Tumblr’s alleged exploitation, but also left out the context that Tumblr explicitly protects users’ intellectual property rights.
What has ensued, over 120,000 notes and reblogs later, is a kind of viral game of telephone, with each widely reblogged strand of the post getting further away from Tumblr’s original intent. From the language of the TOS, which tells users they own their content (but Tumblr needs license to do lots of stuff with that content anyway), users have extrapolated copyright theft, exploitation, and general ill will.
“It seems to me that they’ve realized how creative and talented these people are, and are going to take all the credit! Not cool!” exclaims Tumblr user raejenhair in one of the most recent reblogs.
The good news for Tumblr users is, as joost5 put it:
The fear-mongering idea that your work can be exploited without your knowledge or consent ‘if you do not have a copyright’ is invalid, because everything posted to Tumblr has copyright protection.
Further, if you read past the scary-looking licensing language, you’ll see that license is limited to the purpose of allowing Tumblr to function.
So relax, guys. Sure, it comes with more sponsored ads and less (searchable) porn now, but Tumblr’s still the same laidback, content-happy site you know and love.
Photo via 1nesdliveira/deviantART
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.