June 30, 1999

Yahoo Angers GeoCities Members With Copyright Rules

In a move that has unleashed a grass-roots outcry, Yahoo has imposed new copyright rules on members of GeoCities, the provider of free home pages that it bought in January for $3.6 billion.

The new terms governing GeoCities and its 4 million members were quietly introduced earlier this week as part of the recently completed merger of the two companies. Members who tried to alter or update their home pages were asked to re-register and agree to new terms of service. Those who read the fine print came across a provision that some construed as giving Yahoo full ownership of content posted on GeoCities sites.

But on Wednesday afternoon, in response to the outcry and media attention generated by the new policy, Yahoo posted an amended version of the terms of service agreement. "Yahoo does not own content you submit, unless we specifically tell you otherwise before you submit it," the revised version says.

"We added a couple of sentences to clarify our intentions," said Tim Brady, vice president of production for Yahoo. "Our intentions have not changed."

Similar terms of service have been in place on Yahoo's site for months, if not years, Brady said. But they are new to GeoCities members, many of whom have built elaborate Web sites that they regard as entirely their own property.

In an e-mail in response to an angry GeoCities member, the company said the new provision was written to allow it to copy the content of member pages onto Yahoo Web servers scattered throughout the world, making access to the pages quicker and more reliable. It also said the rule enabled it to feature selected content from members' sites in promotions.

A belief that financial stakes are causing companies to clamp down on the once freewheeling world of the Web.

If members do not agree to the new terms of service, they will not be able to update their sites, Brady said.

"Without knowing our intention, I can see why people would get bent out of shape, and they have," Brady said in a telephone interview Wednesday, before the amended terms of service were posted online. "People have intellectual property on their sites, and they think our intention is to take that and use it for some other purpose rather than serving up Web pages and selling advertising." That is not the case, he said.

News of the changes to the terms of service spread quickly earlier this week among GeoCities members and around the Internet. Dozens of members launched protest Web sites and encouraged members to move their pages to other home page providers where the terms of service are not as restrictive.

Some members said they felt that moving their pages off of GeoCities would make a more potent statement than if they had simply waged an e-mail protest campaign.

"Yahoo and their 'properties' don't make any money if you don't use their services, so don't!" Jim Townsend of San Diego wrote on his protest site. "It is time to show these corporate clowns that there is a large, diverse Internet outside of their 'properties.'"

The controversy has angered Internet users who feel that the high financial stakes are causing companies like Yahoo to clamp down on the once freewheeling world of the Web. David Fiedler, editor in chief of the online, said that even though he is not a GeoCities member, the incident compelled him to "keep the spirit of the Internet alive" by creating his own protest site.

Businesses like GeoCities, built mostly out of content generated by members, have made a handful of executives billionaires, Fiedler said. And user contracts like the one at GeoCities discourage him, he said.

Wednesday's clarification to the terms of service is "kind of like window dressing," Fiedler said. "Now, they're saying they don't own it. They still claim to have a perpetual license to everything. This is intended to lull your suspicions but it doesn't really change the main line there."

GeoCities was one of the first sites on the Web to offer free home pages, and it earns revenue in part from ads that appear on those pages. The site has attracted heavy traffic and loyal users, leading to its sale in January.

Related Article
Yahoo to Acquire Geocities
(January 28, 1999)
Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, said he thinks it is unlikely that Yahoo would bother to make any further use of the content created by GeoCities' members, and that the new terms of service are probably just a sign of defensiveness on the part of the company.

Zittrain joked that earlier terms of service agreements for Internet businesses, before the medium became mainstream, were all likely copied from one service to the next. Now, Internet businesses are subject to the same pressures and potential legal pitfalls other media companies face, so their rules of governance have shifted accordingly. "Suddenly, everyone is wanting to see the Internet conform," he said.

Whether the online agreements Internet users must click on to join services like GeoCities are even enforceable is another question. Dan L. Burke, a professor at Seton Hall University Law School in Newark who specializes in the Internet, said few precedents exist.

"We don't know yet that clicking 'I agree' is signing something," he said. "This is a boilerplate contract, and it's very unclear that any of it is enforceable."

Another popular free home page service, Tripod, revamped its terms of service on Tuesday. Don Zereski, general manager of Tripod, said the "clarification" in the language of the service agreement was issued to make it "crystal clear" to users that the company does not own content posted on personal home pages.

Yahoo's Brady said the company did not intend to upset GeoCities members.

"We're allowing people to put up home pages for free," he said. "If they don't publish, we don't have anything to sell. To betray that trust is so detrimental to our business we would never do it."

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