“Your photos are your photos — you haven’t given up your copyright.”
— Chester Wisniewski
“As outlined in our terms, the people who use Facebook own all of the content and information they post.”
— Facebook statement
There are things I love about Facebook. It’s wonderful for allowing me to stay in touch with friends from high school and college, for finding out about things going on in my community and even for seeing interesting news stories and articles that people share. Unfortunately, it’s also a great place for people to share patently fake stories, recycled death notices from three years ago and hoax, after hoax, after hoax, after hoax.
Among the most popular of the hoaxes is one that comes back around every six months or so. It varies a little each time, but it always starts with some claim about a new Facebook policy and a need to make some public declaration about that policy — as if we’re all Thomas Jefferson and Facebook is King George III. And then comes the legal nonsense — a collection of fancy-sounding gibberish that has absolutely no meaning and no function other than fool us into thinking that maybe, just maybe, we’re actually accomplishing something.
So, just what is in that legal gibberish and what is it that we’re really saying when we copy and paste those privacy notices on Facebook? Each iteration is a bit different, so we’ll examine several, starting with the most recent one that was circulating this week.
To begin with, posting something to Facebook is not a valid way of staking some legal claim. There have been one or two publicized cases where a court has allowed someone to serve a copy of a complaint or summons on a person through a Facebook message, but only after the person has exhausted more traditional methods of service and only after a valid complaint has been filed in a court of law. Posting a notice to your Facebook wall is no more a valid way of staking a legal claim that writing a notice in crayon and attaching it to your front door with Silly Putty.
The current hoax then goes on to claim that Facebook has changed their terms of service and is going to make everything public unless you copy the status update. Certainly, Facebook can change their terms of service and you, in turn, can choose to continue using Facebook or delete your account. Again, posting a status update has no bearing.
The hoax language then goes on, as several past versions have done, to reference a non-existent section of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and the Rome Statute. The UCC is a 60-year-old document drawn up in an attempt to standardize state commercial practices laws in an age of ever-increasing interstate business. Although there is a section 1-308, it has no numbered subsections as claimed in the hoax. It is just an introductory section about the meaning of certain language. The Rome Statute is even more inapplicable to Facebook. It is the treaty that created the International Criminal Court. The U.S. signed the treaty, but the Senate has never ratified it. Unless you’re planning on bringing war criminals to justice on Facebook, citing it won’t help.
A previous version of the hoax cited “articles L.111, 112 and 113 of the Code of Intellectual Property.” The citation is clumsy in that it combines the system for identifying acts of Congress (the designation “public law” and then a number giving the session of Congress it came from) and the U.S. intellectual property code which is numbered completely differently. Again, the designation is gibberish.
An even older version referred to the “Berne Convention” (or, incorrectly, the “Berner Convention”). Here, at least, the subject is actually related to copyright law. The Berne Convention is an international agreement signed in Switzerland 120 years ago to extend copyright protections across all signatory nations. The U.S. adopted it in 1989. The Berne Convention might help you protect your rights in other nations, but it’s not going to do you much good on Facebook.
If you really want to protect yourself on Facebook, you should read the document that actually tells you what your rights are — the terms and conditions of use — and then familiarize yourself with the site’s privacy settings. And always remember the fallback rule of social media — never write anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court. He plays a mean game of pinochle, but has never been known to play bridge.