LinkedIn Terms of Service: From one of the worst to one of the best
In the past year, I’ve been picking on LinkedIn a bit for the copyright licensing requirements in their Terms of Service. When talking about my work I routinely throw up a slide with this block of text as a visual demonstration of how unreadable TOS can be, and then explain worst case scenarios of what the terms could mean–typically to surprised faces (probably of LinkedIn users). The ACM publication license is nothing compared to this:
[Y]ou grant LinkedIn a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable, sublicenseable, fully paid up and royalty-free right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, process, analyze, use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered, any information you provide, directly or indirectly to LinkedIn, including, but not limited to, any user generated content, ideas, concepts, techniques and/or data to the services, you submit to LinkedIn, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or to any third parties.
At CHI (a conference on computer-human interaction) this year I presented some preliminary work on copyright Terms of Service that got some attention. Among the 30 different online content creation websites I studied – including social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, large user-generated content sites like Craiglist and Wikipedia, and creative sites like fanfiction.net and DeviantArt – LinkedIn had some of the very worst licensing terms. At over 7,000 words and at a college junior reading level, it is also pretty likely that (a) LinkedIn users didn’t read the TOS, and (b) they wouldn’t understand it even if they did. But under the terms quoted above, by clicking through this TOS, users gave LinkedIn very broad rights to use their work. Though the site might not have actually exercised these rights, they could modify, license, and commercialize not only content and data but also ideas expressed through LinkedIn. Creating derivative works could mean anything from changing font size to publishing a book of “world’s worst resumes.” Moreover, the license is irrevocable, which means that once you click to agree, you’re stuck with it.
I often describe the unreadability of Terms of Service as a pervasive usability problem and argue that site designers should do something about it. This might mean I’ve lost my go-to example to pick on, but it looks like LinkedIn actually has. A couple of weeks ago, the site announced upcoming changes to their TOS that will go into effect later in October. According to their blog post, the rationale was in part: “[W]e know that most terms of service are traditionally dense and hard to read. So, we’ve rewritten our User Agreement to try to make it easier to read and simpler to understand. This includes cutting the length by half and using more plain language that is easily understood.” Wow! It’s like they read my mind, or maybe my paper. They also altered their copyright licensing terms to be less of a rights grab. Here’s the new one:
[Y]ou own the content and information that you submit or post to the Services and you are only granting LinkedIn the following non-exclusive license: A worldwide, transferable and sublicensable right to use, copy, modify, distribute, publish, and process, information and content that you provide through our Services, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or others.
Following that, they do something that most websites definitely don’t do: they enumerate limitations to this license. Here are some of the changes that have been made:
- The license is now expressly revocable; if you delete content or close your account, the license ends. (With the caveat that other users might have copied or shared your content.)
- They will not license to others or use your content in advertising without your permission. (Though ads may appear near your content.)
- They no longer have the right to create derivative works and they clarify the meaning of “modify” to refer to formatting changes rather than any substantive changes.
The last one of these is particularly important. Based on survey work that we did following our TOS analysis (described in a paper currently under review), I can say that the right to modify/transform is a sticky one with users. It is a term that is very common, but many people (a) don’t expect this to be a right they’ve granted, and (b) don’t think that sites should have this right. I can speculate that part of the reason for this is that “modify” could mean a spectrum of things–from formatting edits to the “world’s worst resumes” compilation. We also found in our survey that compared to other kinds of websites, users actually want social media sites like LinkedIn to have less control over their work – possibly because of the more personal nature of that content.
In short – after these changes take effect, LinkedIn will go from having one of the worst copyright TOS I’ve seen to having one of the best. What they said about improving readability and word count is true – at 3800 words now, it’s almost half the length of the old one, and a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of 12.1 puts it in the realm of a high school senior rather than a college junior.
It also looks to me as if they might have actually spoken with users about their feelings about uses of their content, which is what I think other sites should do as well. Because based on our research: even though only about 10% of people read TOS on the websites they visit, they do care about uses of their content because they have opinions about how it should and should not be used. Even something as simple as a website clarifying what they don’t mean to do could go a long way towards alleviating concerns that users might have.