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The Weblog Question

People are starting Weblogs in growing numbers, but the owner of the content isn't always clear
As RSS technology becomes a more popular way for people to access Web content, Schwimmer expects other Weblog authors to run into the same problem. RSS feeds are about to become "the next big thing" in information access, he says. "You're going to have the classic 'who owns [intellectual property]?' problem."

Blogger Bob Roudebush, a Microsoft employee who writes a personal Weblog, takes his concerns a step further: "Copyrights are going to kill Weblogs as we know them. Plain and simple," he wrote in a posting on the RSS-feed debate. In a follow-up E-mail exchange, Roudebush says, "As we start to consume information in different ways, it becomes very hard to tell how content is being licensed (protected) and what rights I have to use it."

Yet many companies haven't drafted formal Weblog policies, including Microsoft, where hundreds of employees blog at various sites without specific guidelines. Microsoft trusts employees to use good judgment in adhering to its employee rule book when it comes to blogging. "When talking about Microsoft topics, I try to stick to the guidance from my manager with respect to blogging, which is basically 'be smart,'" Microsoft technical evangelist Robert Scoble says via E-mail. Scoble sometimes disagrees with Microsoft policies on his popular Scobleizer site.

But Microsoft's informal approach may not be enough as the number of bloggers at the company grows, especially since the line between "personal" Weblogs and those done as part of the job can be hard to distinguish. For example, Heather Hamilton's "Marketing At Microsoft" Weblog lists Microsoft-sponsored career events alongside reminiscences of her college days. In addition to such unofficial journals, Microsoft publishes "team" Weblogs on MSDN.com, and a few of the company's executives write Weblogs, too. Bill Gates is considering starting one. And last month, Microsoft began testing a hosted Weblog service called MSN Spaces on MSN.com that has already generated 1.5 million accounts.

Despite a corporate obsession with intellectual property, Microsoft's policy is hard to decipher when it comes to ownership of Weblog content. Microsoft allows employees such as Scoble and Hamilton to maintain rights to their personal blogs, even though it links to their Web sites from MSDN.com. On the other hand, the copyright notice on MSN Spaces appears to give Microsoft certain rights over the content hosted by its service. When asked to explain the company's policy, a spokesperson says, "The question of ownership of copyright for blog content is complicated, and the answer depends on a number of factors." Another puts it more bluntly: "It's something that doesn't have an answer."

Why the waffling? It's possible Microsoft doesn't want to mess with a good thing. Employees who blog may pour more creative energy into their work when the copyrights are in their name. More than a legal fine point, the rights may act as an incentive--any benefits that accrue, accrue to the blogger.

In addition, bloggers may feel a greater sense of independence, and outsiders may perceive Weblogs as being more objective, when copyrighted in the writer's name. That's meaningful because one of the defining characteristics of personal Weblogs is their unfiltered viewpoint. A Weblog with Microsoft's copyright on it might be more valuable to Microsoft but less valued by the people reading it.

For all those reasons and more, some employers may not want to be too closely associated with employee Weblogs. "With ownership comes responsibility, and, in the case of blogs, there's very little control in a classical editorial sense," Forrester's Li says in an E-mail interview.

The big question is whether Weblogs are done in the "course and scope" of an employee's work or as extracurricular activity, intellectual-property lawyer Tune says. At Microsoft, a few current job openings list "participating actively in the developer community through Weblogs" as one responsibility. The openings are for what Microsoft calls "evangelists." For people like this, where contributing to a Weblog is part of the job, Microsoft may retain the copyrights. Several Weblogs on Microsoft's MSDN.com site carry the company's copyright symbol, though many others don't. The Windows Security Logging Weblog, described as representing "thoughts from the Windows auditing team," bears a copyright only in the name of "Eric."

At Microsoft and elsewhere, some Weblogs don't bear copyright notices at all. That doesn't mean no one owns the content, only that it's unclear who does. The Weblog of Sun Microsystems president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz doesn't carry a copyright notice: "I'm fine with anyone using the content," explains Schwartz, via E-mail. "The broader the distribution and the more people who build on these ideas, the better."

Sun's copyright policies are contained in fine print at the bottom of blogs.sun.com, a Web site for "any Sun employee to write about anything." The company allows reuse of Weblog content, but its official terms specify that redistribution is allowed only for personal use and when a permission notice is included, among other stipulations.

GM's FastLane blog uses a Creative Commons license, a popular alternative to a standard copyright that lets the licenser set the terms under which content is reused. A blogger, for instance, can require that anyone who redistributes content must attribute that content to the author and not use it for commercial purposes. Yet, it's "not a priority for us to copyright" the dialogue on the site, says Michael Wiley, director of new media with GM Communications. "The FastLane blog is a grassroots conversation with the marketplace," Wiley says via E-mail. "Copyrighting conversations in the blogosphere is equivalent to checking one's credentials at the door."

And just because the highly recognizable copyright symbol appears on a Web site doesn't always make it clear who controls what. The terms of use for Microsoft's MSN Spaces service claims "all contents of the MSN Web Sites" are copyrighted by Microsoft or its suppliers and that users grant Microsoft permission to copy, distribute, edit, and sublicense their postings. Does that mean MSN bloggers relinquish some of their own copyrights? Despite multiple requests for clarification, Microsoft has been unable to provide any.

For now, few business bloggers seem overly concerned about the legal fine points. But it may be only a matter of time before the copyright question becomes a copyright issue. "It will become important if liability arises out of it or if it becomes extremely valuable," Tune says. Given the soaring popularity of Weblogs, both scenarios seem all but inevitable.

Illustration by Viktor Koen