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John Foley
John Foley
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The Weblog Question

People are starting Weblogs in growing numbers, but the owner of the content isn't always clear

When Mark Jen started working for Google Inc. earlier this month, one of the first things he did was create a Weblog where he discussed, among other things, his impressions of a Google sales meeting. It was too much information he soon learned, and within two days, Jen removed the sensitive material from his Web site, explaining, "I goofed."

As more professionals create Weblogs, those opinion-filled Web sites where a mix of anecdote and insight can stir interest in one person's observations or an entire company's strategy, the complexities and questions are beginning to surface. Who owns Weblog content? What are the risks? And how far should employees go in sharing their thoughts?

A growing number of people are reading Weblogs, and their demographics--younger and more affluent than those who don't--make them an attractive audience, according to a November report by Forrester Research. Anxious to get involved, more technologists, marketing managers, and other business people are becoming Weblog writers, or bloggers. "Forrester envisions a day when new employees on their first day will be handed a sheet of paper with their phone number, E-mail address--and a URL for their blog," analyst Charlene Li observed in the report. That day is closer than you think.

Two weeks ago, Randy Baseler, VP of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, started a Weblog, where he offered Boeing's point of view on competitor Airbus' new supersized airplane, the A380. A few weeks earlier, General Motors Corp. vice chairman Bob Lutz launched the FastLane Blog, where he posted observations from the floor of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The trend is forcing IT, human resources, and legal departments to come up to speed quickly. The issue of who owns the copyrights to Weblogs, in particular, seems to have caught some people off guard. Mark Potts, chief technology officer for Hewlett-Packard's management software business, says that he would be surprised if his Weblog, which is hosted on HP's Web site, was copyrighted by his employer. "That's an interesting question," he says.

But, after checking the company's policy, an HP spokeswoman discovered that the rights to Potts' content belong to the company and not the CTO. "HP owns the copyright for anything written by an HP employee published on an HP Web site, including blog entries," the spokeswoman says via E-mail.

For companies that require blogging as a function of an employee's job, the issues of ownership and oversight are easier to establish. The content typically belongs to the employer in the same way that work-related E-mail does, and the Weblogs can be monitored and even edited. Increasingly, however, people are writing Weblogs on subjects closely related to their jobs, yet without official endorsements from their employers. Such sites can fall into a "fuzzy, gray area" of copyright law, says Cydney Tune, an intellectual-property lawyer with law firm Pillsbury Winthrop.

Ownership is important because Weblog material has both potential value and liability. "I would think the employer would want to own the content," Tune says. "As a general rule, it's better for employers to own everything that the employee creates because you never know when it's going to become important to your business."

Online advertising, a loyal following of readers, and even book deals are among the benefits that can accrue. Conversely, the list of employees who have been fired for missteps keeps getting longer. Related issues include how Weblogs might affect a company's reputation or trademarks, and, as in Jen's case, the potential disclosure of sensitive information.

It's also possible that readers will misconstrue personal Weblogs written by employees as a company's official position. "Regardless of how many disclaimers you put on your Weblog that your content is private and not related to your employer, people will treat your statements as representing your company," writes Werner Vogels in a Jan. 6 posting on his All Things Distributed Weblog. A few days later, Vogels, an employee of Inc. who had begun his Weblog while a researcher at Cornell University, disclosed that he had been promoted to chief technology officer at the company.

Amazon's communications department didn't publicly disclose Vogels appointment as CTO. That Vogels did so himself speaks to the potential for professionals to reveal new and relevant information that would otherwise have no outlet other than word of mouth. Yet his high-profile position also means Vogels will be more circumspect in what he says on his Weblog. "It is obvious that in that role, I have to be more thoughtful in how I use this medium," he writes. The vetting can reach the highest levels inside a company: According to a recent article in Fortune, Sun Microsystems' opinionated CEO, Scott McNealy, was urged not to blog after showing insiders some of his writing samples.

Forrester Research advises companies to provide guidelines not only for company-sanctioned Weblogs, but also for employees who do them on their own time. The IT research firm even recommends that managers occasionally view the personal Weblogs of subordinates to see what they're saying. "Respecting existing confidentiality agreements and companies' secrets is a no-brainer--and not doing so should clearly be grounds for firing," Li wrote.

The use of RSS technology raises intellectual-property questions, intellectual-property lawyer Martin Schwimmer says. Photo by Sacha Lecca

The use of RSS technology raises intellectual-property questions, intellectual-property lawyer Martin Schwimmer says.

Photo by Sacha Lecca
Business bloggers need to consider how their content gets distributed. A growing number of Weblog readers are using news-aggregation services to browse multiple Weblogs from a single source. But there's a simmering controversy over how news aggregators use Really Simple Syndication technology to do that. RSS is a format that makes it possible to automate the process of pushing content from one Web site to another or to an RSS reader on a desktop PC.

Intellectual-property lawyer Martin Schwimmer recently cut ties between his Weblog, where he writes about trademark matters, and's aggregation service. Bloglines "is not authorized to reproduce my content nor to change the appearance of my pages, which it does," Schwimmer wrote on Jan. 14. The issue was compounded by the fact that Bloglines published Schwimmer's entire blog entries, not just summaries, making it less likely that readers would visit his site.

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