How To Piss People Off: Publish A Book Using Their Tweets Without Asking Them First

from the common-courtesy dept

A few years ago, when Twitter was starting to take off, we questioned whether or not Tweets were covered under copyright. While technically tweets could definitely be covered by copyright, it’s still a little bit murky, especially with the “retweet” as an integral part of Twitter culture. That said, there’s no doubt that people feel ownership over their tweets, especially those who lovingly craft wit and humor into each of the 140 characters. Recently, the editor of the book Tweet Nothings, a book of curated Tweets, sent an apologetic letter to the people whose Tweets were included in the book — after the book had already been published in December:

Dear Mr. Barnes,

We sincerely apologize for using your Tweet in our “Tweet Nothings” book without contacting you prior to publication! I wrote the introduction and compiled quotes from Twitter for the book at the direction of the publisher. I do not make any money from this work. We did want to contact each person quoted in the book; the publisher’s legal advisors said it was not necessary under fair use guidelines. We sincerely view this book as a celebration of Twitter, and an introduction to some of the best and brightest people to follow. We are very sorry if you or anyone is offended or upset by the book.

I would be more than happy to send you copies of the book. Please accept my apologies.

Sincerely yours,
Suzanne Schwalb

While the apology is an admirable step, the anger seen in the reviews of the book on Amazon is not unexpected. This is not a “fair-use versus copyright” issue at all. This is a “doing the smart, right thing” issue. Whether or not we think that people should feel ownership over their “ideas” is moot — the issue here is that they do, and as such, to ignore that is short sighted. Books have successfully been assembled using Tweets before. For his book, Twitter Wit, editor Nick Douglas did a good job working with Tweet authors, who had to explicitly submit their best Tweets to be included in the book. As a result, not only was his book received favorably by the Twitter community, every one of the included authors, who are supposedly the most witty on Twitter, each became a promoter for the sale of the book — a winning promotional combination.

So, by not involving the Tweet authors in the publishing of Tweet Nothings, the publishers not only attracted the ire of the wronged authors, but also missed out on a huge opportunity for free, viral promotion. After the exchange with Barnes, the publisher, Peter Pauper Press, issued an official apology in which it said:

We regret that we did not contact the people whose quotes we used in advance. We will be contacting each one with an apology. In the meantime, we are ceasing to sell the book in all venues and will not resume sales until everyone quoted in the book is satisfied with our response.

If that’s the case, and if the publisher stays true to their word, then they may never be able to sell the book again. After all, Merlin Mann, one of the wronged Tweet authors, seems irrecovably pissed.

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Companies: peter pauper press

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Comments on “How To Piss People Off: Publish A Book Using Their Tweets Without Asking Them First”

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ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Oh please

Yeah, Michael Mann (@hotdogsladies) got his panties in a twist over this, too.

Look, the idea that every bon mot that drops from your mouth (or fingers) is worth the weight of the state defending is a pretty recent one. (See Mickey Mouse Copyright.)

In a fair and just world, anyone who is concerned about this would be required to add a copyright notice to their tweets.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Oh please

“anyone who is concerned about this would be required to add a copyright notice to their tweets.”

Funny thing the copyright would be longer than the tweet …

“Look, the idea that every bon mot that drops from your mouth (or fingers) is worth the weight of the state defending is a pretty recent one.”

This sense of entitlement is pretty disturbing and disgusting to me. This “I said that first you cant use it” mentality is the stupidest thing and it is only getting worse. Personally I would have gone down the there is no such thing as bad publicity route and totally hazed these idiots. It would have caused a ton of blog entries, hate mail and tweets, people tweeting dont buy this book, etc, all free publicity. Mike talks about things back firing for people

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh please

“This sense of entitlement is pretty disturbing and disgusting to me. This “I said that first you cant use it” mentality is the stupidest thing and it is only getting worse”

I can only picture twelve-year-old girls shouting “Stop copying me!” when I hear this crap.

Unfortunately, our legal system seems to have devolved to the level of twelve-year-old girls over the past few decades.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh please

oops last line unfinished …

Mike talks about things back firing for people this is a perfect example of where you can use a screw up to your advantage. The streisand effect is a double edged tool. After all we are talking about this book here on techdirt. We just need to fan the flames and get these twits (is that what you call a person who tweets?) to do our advertising for us….

Dennis Yang (profile) says:

Re: Oh please

It’s not a fair use/copyright issue at all — the publisher here is most likely covered by fair use, but the issue here is that they clearly missed an opportunity to involve everyone in the project.

So, even though you may be legally “in the right” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should blindly proceed.

scarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh please

It’s strange to see this perspective on this blog. Someone created something new by using freely, legally available quotes, and you’re claiming the assembler is not “right” for doing it. (“This is a ‘doing the smart, right thing’ issue.”)

Masnick often makes a point of saying those “wronged” when their material is appropriated shouldn’t feel wronged, but should instead see it as an opportunity for more free exposure.

I agree the publisher could’ve involved the tweeters and had some free promotion as a result. The fact still remains that they didn’t do anything wrong or against these people. They even credit them (via twitter handle) as the sources. What is wrong with that?

Dennis Yang (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Oh please

Yup.. you’re completely right. If *I* were included in the book, I’d be thrilled.

But people *are* angry by the way they handled it, and it was shortsighted on the part of the publisher (who should know how authors think) to not realize that people would be pissed..

The fact that they said:

“We did want to contact each person quoted in the book; the publisher’s legal advisors said it was not necessary under fair use guidelines.”

Was a bit lame — really? Hiding behind what your lawyers told you?

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oh please

“And yes.. I linked to Merlin Mann at the end of the post.”

Damn, how do I keep missing that stuff? I guess I get post happy when I see a topic I know about.

“So, even though you may be legally “in the right” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should blindly proceed.”

Well, yeah, there’s the law, and then there’s what’s right.

R. Miles (profile) says:

Again, IP fails logic.

“This is a ‘doing the smart, right thing’ issue.”
No offense, but this isn’t even a “right thing” issue. It’s another attempt at a “It’s mine!” issue by those who felt their “tweets were stolen” for a book.

It’s an asinine approach, copyright or not, permission or not. Seriously, what the hell are people thinking when they’re placing content in the public domain then bitch when someone utilizes it for a completely separate project.

Any twitter user who is upset their tweets were used in the book, and are complaining, are doing nothing more than fueling the problem of ownership via “intellectual property”.

Do note my use of the word “intellectual” is against my will, as there’s no intelligence to be found in issues like the one presented in this article.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

A single tweet (which can be more than one sentence, btw) IS the whole body of work. Copying it in its entirety isn’t fair use.

A person’s timeline isn’t a novel from which you can cherry pick the best quotes, it’s a collection of 140-characters-long distinct, separate “works”.

IP Esq says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The amount of the work taken is but one of the four factors that must be analyzed to determine fair use, and no one single factor is determinative. As such, taking the entirety of a work (in this case, a tweet) doesn’t negate the possibility of a successful Fair Use defense.

That being said, I still stick to the assertion that a Fair Use discussion is likely moot in regards to most of the tweets at issues since short phrases aren’t protectable by copyright.

gf999111 (profile) says:

paper vs digital

it just goes to show how differently people view the two mediums – paper and digital

i think that people still view their online info as being secure and their own ……

it is difficult for people to accept that their words can be used by anyone anytime …. hey it happens all the time when we speak and then tell someone else that someone else said this ….

or is it all about the $

Anonymous Coward says:

I find it odd that the Twitter authors aren’t embracing innovative business models to their own advantage. I mean, if these books are actually making money, then one of the Twiter authors who was included in the book could make their own Twitter-based book. Hell, they could even contact all the authors they wanted. And they could Tweet themselves to popularity. “If you liked my quotes in ____, you’ll love my new Tweet-book _______!” Connect with your fans and give them a reason to buy your stuff. The fact that people are getting upset over what is clearly a fair use case is kind of sickening. Just because you have an expectation of privacy/exclusivity/whatever, does not make it so.

Connect with your fans and reap the benefits. Use innovative business models to show the market why your product is better. Don’t cling to outdated and broken ideas like royalties.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The issue here is that the Twits are falling victim to the same trap the publisher did. Instead of tearing down the book, they should want to use it as a stepping stone for their own success. If you increase the sales (or refrain from trying to decrease the sales) of this non-attributing book, then you can use its popularity to boost sales of your own (presumably better) book. The free market will decide which approach (atrributing vs. non-attributing) is better.

By passing up this chance to increase their own revenue, the Twitter users are proving that they are not at all concerned with using innovative business models to improve the market. They are just looking for something to be outraged at and they found it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The appropriate response to recognizing the fact that someone is not making the maximum possible profits is not: Bitch and moan on the internet and rate their product poorly on Amazon.

The appropriate response is to realize you can do better and then: Blow them out of the water with an even better business model and make enough money to build your own version of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.

william (profile) says:

Honestly, the “irrecovably pissed” guy sounds like a gigantic hypocrite to me.

He calls himself defender of fair use and such but is bitching major time when someone fair use his stuff? Time to act what you believe in.

If he’s a true believer in fair use, he wouldn’t be this angry over this incident. Pissed maybe, but not angry. Yeah it’s in poor taste to not ask first, but the law does not require you to ask. Obviously this guy’s “sense of entitlement” has a real clash with his fake belief of being a “defender of fair use”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If he were really a defender of fair use, he would be able to make a competing product based on his own principles. I’m sure the time he has devoted to being pissed about this is comparable to the time it takes to copy/paste a few hundred tweets into a doc. Then, after he made his superior product, he could release it to the market. It would be a smash hit, decimating his opponent’s sales; proving once-and-for-all that his methods are better. Unless, of course, he’s just a hyprocrite. In that case, he would probably spend his time complaining about it and not doing anything constructive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Several years ago an author quoted me extensively in a book he wrote about selling on Ebay. Since I posted the original messages in a public user forum on Ebay, the author probably didn’t have to bother getting my permission to quote anything, but he – and the publisher – did request my permission via email, and I received a copy of the book once it went to press. There are easy ways to engage participants in wanting to be a part of whatever you’re working on. I’ve been quoted anonymously in other published work, always with my permission.

Hilary says:


I’ve been following the uproar over this, and think this is an example of bad bullying behavior. It’s easy to be a mean twit through twitter. Did anyone talk to this editor personally…on the phone? Or meet her in person? Would you all really be this mean if you actually had to deal with this in person rather than behind your usernames? Talk about being unprofessional!

IP Esq says:

What ever happened to short phrases not being protected by copyright? Those don’t fall under fair use, which is an affirmative defense. Without having read the book, I can only assume that some, if not many, of those 140 character or under phrases would be considered uncopyrightable.

Would it have been the right thing to do for the publisher to contact the authors? Absolutely. Was it infringement for not doing so? Likely not.

Anonymous Coward: Yes, the book itself would have a copyright as a compilation. This would give the author of the book the rights to the order and selection of the tweets, but not to the tweets themselves.

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