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For artists, social networking sites provide a great place to communicate with not only each other, but also their fan base. In a way that was never truly available before, sites such as Friendster and MySpace enable people to connect in the one-to-many way that had traditionally been relegated only to those with big marketing budgets.

However, with this new-found power in the hands of the individual, there are a growing number of small details to which artists must pay attention – and that means headaches once relegated to legal departments must now be handled by individuals.

The recent MySpace flap over its terms of service wording is a good case study in how the digital world confuses even the best of us.

Several months ago, the MySpace user base became agitated over the open-ended terms of service contract on the social networking site that appeared to give the company a non-exclusive license to distribute and use any media content uploaded to the site.

While I’m not a musician, I am a writer – and for some time, I was using MySpace to launch a local writer’s group. That meant, at times, uploading writing to the site. I was skeptical, as I always am, when I started receiving notes stating that anyone uploading content was giving up their copyright. Here’s the concerning language from paragraph 6, subsection 1 of the MySpace terms of services:

By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content on or through the MySpace Services, you hereby grant to MySpace.com a limited license to use, modify, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce, and distribute such Content solely on and through the MySpace Services.

I’ve been writing about technology, copyrights, and intellectual property for a few years, so I wasn’t too concerned over the wording. The nuances involved in digital copyright are many. I’ve covered companies such as Napster and MP3.com that ran afoul of the law and ended up paying a steep price. In today’s world, copyright law requires companies (and artists) to negotiate an ever-growing maze of legal land mines to do anything online.

To me, the controversy seemed much ado about nothing. These types of “scares” make their way through all social networking sites at one time or another, but they mostly fade away. The MySpace controversy, though, took on a life of its own, according to this New York Times article about Bill Bragg’s fight to get the social networking site to clarify its terms of service.

In the end, the controversy did exactly what it should have: it forced MySpace to explain its terms of service to its audience – which isn’t a group of lawyers, but a mass of ordinary citizens. To its credit, MySpace has added common language to the legalese within the terms that explains exactly what each clause means. It was a common-sense solution to a problem that is quite common in the increasingly complex system of copyright and intellectual property in a digital age.

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