Intellectual Property

Who owns the copyright to forum posts?

Dianping is an online forum were consumers share their experiences - users post opinions of restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues. The website publishes a Restaurant Guide (餐馆指南) that collects member-contributed restaurant reviews for Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities.

When Sohu's food and drink channel republished reviews of eleven restaurants, Dianping sued for copyright infringement to the tune of 70,000 yuan.

Sohu argued that since the text of the reviews originated in comments made by netizens, the book is not protected; or, if it is protected, then the copyright is shared by Dianping and the online contributors, so Dianping has no business filing a suit on its own.

The court found in favor of Dianping, for 7200 yuan and an apology.

Is this a landmark step for online IP? The Beijing News ran its article with the dek "First court judgment that confirms copyright protection status of netizen comments." This is misleading, however, since the court actually found that the original work belonged to Dianping rather than the netizens. According to TBN report:

...[the court] believes that the text uploaded by netizens, such as "good quality meat," "quite distinctive," and "unacceptably underdone," are all simple, common phrases rather than original written expression, and as such do not fall under copyright protection. So in selecting these writings, Dianping did not need netizens' permission, and its assembling netizens' writing into a book has originality; it is protected under copyright law and can bring suit on its own.

Dianping's restaurant guides faced a libel suit last year from a Shanghai restauranteur, but the court found that people have a right to make poor reviews, and it dismissed the suit. But if the guide is Dianping's creative work rather than the personal expression of a number of individuals, does it have the same protection?

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There are currently 4 Comments for Who owns the copyright to forum posts?.

Comments on Who owns the copyright to forum posts?

are user-submitted forum posts fundamentally different from more traditional forms of non-professional user-submitted material such as "letters to the editor" in newspapers, or jokes for jay leno on late-night television?

i would imagine that most societies privilege the rights of the publisher over the rights of the non-professional who freely chooses to submit a piece for publication.

for one, the non-professional submits/posts in the hopes of being posted, and thus, explicitly or otherwise, "consents" to publication.

moreover, to privilege the rights of the submitting person over the rights of the publisher might discourage public discourse: for what publisher would consider it worth his/her time and effort to publish, for instance, a reader's opinion if the reader retained the absolute right of refusal with regard to the time and manner of publication, and could thereby cause the publisher to remove from publication that same opinion? (note that this concern is not premised on principles of "free speech," but rather on "neutral" concerns of economics.)

a far more interesting question in the world of law would be to ask whether the person submitting the forum post retained ANY rights as to his/her expression; and specifically, whether that person would have cause to sue Sohu for the unauthorized republication of the original post.


Your question, "Who owns the copyright to forum posts?" has a simple universal answer:

It depends on the TnC -- the Terms'n'Conditions.

Contributors to for example, are explicitly giving up their copyright when they hit the big "submit" button.

Contributors to some other websites (like, say, - a "wikipedia with opinions") explicitly keep their rights post "submit".

And there's every variation in between.

My Chinese is shitty, but from what I could puzzle out on Dianpings TnC page, they own your submissions.

So the compilation is theirs (obviously) and the court made the correct ruling.

The _real_ news is the restaurant guy getting no relief from a bad review --- now that _is_ new in China!!

It shouldn't depend on the Terms and Conditions! TnC would have to obey the rule of law, for example. If I'm MicroSoft, I can't just say, "By agreeing to use this software you must cook Bill a meal should he come to your home." The law would apply reasonable standards and expectations.

b said: "i would imagine that most societies privilege the rights of the publisher over the rights of the non-professional who freely chooses to submit a piece for publication." b is right. This is the way things are now. But this trend is wrong.

People who willfully submit their comments to a site should be able to willfully remove their comments. Copyright law needs to be changed to grant the author of any comment the right to remove his or her comment. Currently, the only way to do this on many sites is to petition the webmaster to agree to your request. But with a new copyright law, granting individual authors the right to freely post and remove their information, most blogs and sites will then become equipped with features for posting and deleting at will.

There is no sense in being greedy about this. There is a greater good involved that we are only beginning to understand. The internet was only popularized within the past decade. Our countries and cultures are still adapting to it, still considering its implications. If we don't have a law now extending copyright privileges to individual authors, then I predict that we will within in the next decade. Why?

I don't have to prove who I am to type these words. I am totally anonymous. I could be 80. I could be 8. I could be a pre-teen posting things about myself, what city I live in, what neighborhood I live in, what my phone number is, what my email address is. It's not hard to dig up information on people. You type in their name, their hometown, then you get a little information. You find an email address and search for that. Then you are led to forums where people used that email address to register, and you have discovered a cash of information -- just like leading a vein in the ground to a cache of gold deposits.

You might be saying, "Why would I be searching up someone online? And why would someone be searching for me?" You may well die before ever searching for someone online. And you might live out your whole life never having been searched for. All I am saying is there are people who do it. And the longer our world and our societies continue in this information age, the more our personal lives will become digitized and uploaded -- a never ending cache of searchable info. And it only takes 0.2 seconds or less.

I don't mean to paint a portrait of a dark and sinister world. I am not trying to alarm anyone, or appeal to anyone's emotions. I'm not calling foul, or crying wolf. All I'm saying is this: people ought to have the right to post and delete their information freely. That's it. That's all I'm saying. The author of a post should have a copyright license for what he or she chooses to post. That license should allow him or her to post or delete at will.

We simply can't anticipate what will or won't happen this year, or next year, or ten years from now. We don't know what sort of information will be dangerous. Therefore, we can't possibly envision laws and rules that will take into account all the different scenarious for determining whether or not a poster should or shouldn't be able to remove or delete his or her personal information. We cannot foresee all the impending issues with certain.

Therefore, I feel it best to simply do this: 1) grant an automatic copyright to everyone who puts personally authored information online; 2) require hosting companies and site publishers to technologically-enable their users to post and delete information; 3) clean up spurious Terms and Conditions accordingly.

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