June 30, 1999 6:55 PM PDT

Yahoo relents on GeoCities terms

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How much content do community sites "own"?

June 28, 1999
Faced with a mushrooming boycott of its recently integrated Yahoo-GeoCities, Yahoo this afternoon modified new terms of service that many members said gave away rights to their intellectual property.

Yahoo added several sentences to try to clarify a controversial provision about content ownership. "Yahoo does not own content you submit, unless we specifically tell you otherwise before you submit it. You license the content to Yahoo as set forth below for the purpose of displaying and distributing such content on our network of properties and for the promotion and marketing of our services," according to a posting on its Web site.

"We have heard [the protesters]," said Yahoo executive producer Tim Brady, adding that the email messages to Yahoo have been extremely vocal and passionate. "We always have and will always continue to listen to our users."

As reported, previous GeoCities members have been flocking to the Boycottyahoo site, hoping the pressure would persuade the leading portal to withdraw or change the conditions that users must agree to before they can edit or update their Yahoo-GeoCities Web pages.

These protester are up in arms because they feared that, under the new terms of service, Yahoo could have turned their posted material into movies or other electronic forms of entertainment to which they would have no rights. The concerns were heightened by Yahoo's acquisition of video streaming firm Broadcast.com and the growing collaboration between Internet companies and traditional media firms.

Yahoo acquired GeoCities for an estimated $5 billion in January, looking to shore up its community offerings. The portal said at the time that it plans to integrate e-commerce throughout GeoCities as well as direct-market to home page builders. Yahoo completed the acquisition of GeoCities at the end of May.

Boycottyahoo claimed a "partial victory," as previous language for the terms of service remains. The terms still give Yahoo "the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, and fully sublicensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, and display such content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed."

But some users say the changes add up to little more than a smokescreen.

"There is NO substantive change. Yahoo has NOT changed its terms of service, and is still demanding the same license from GeoCitizens today that it demanded for the first time on June 25," wrote Mark Welch in an email interview with CNET News.com. Welch, who runs a consumer advocate site for publishers, added that Yahoo still has the right to license the material as they see fit.

The Boycottyahoo site urges users to stop using Yahoo to show the company that there is "a large, diverse Internet outside" the Yahoo network, which includes Broadcast.com.

"Don't buy products from merchants at 'shopping.Yahoo.com,' and let them know why," a message on the site reads.

Some intellectual property attorneys have suggested that users not reregister, blocking Yahoo from having rights to their material. "There is a real fear, because that type of clause would give extensive rights to Yahoo in this case," said Francoise Gilbert, an intellectual property rights attorney at law firm Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich.

Such expansive terms are not specific to Yahoo, however. Xoom.com and Lycos's Tripod are among those that have terms worded nearly identically.

Taking a cue from the pressure put on Yahoo, Tripod has also tweaked its terms of service, adding the phrase: "...for the limited purposes of displaying and promoting the user's personal homepage and for displaying the content of such personal homepages elsewhere within the Lycos Network."

"It's been an ongoing dialogue with some of our concerned members, [the Yahoo boycott] was a catalyst," said Geoff Strawbridge, director of membership services at Tripod. "We feel strongly that [intellectual property], member-generated content, and creativity are fundamental issues which Tripod supports and champions on the Net."

Yahoo's Brady said, "Being that GeoCities is the biggest, we are probably under the microscope," while the other sites are not."

Several other community sites, including Crosswinds and HobbyHost, don't ask for the terms in question.

"Ever since the release about [Yahoo-GeoCities] owning the material, Crosswinds has seen a 40 percent jump in new members per day, up to about 1,200 now," Crosswinds president Scott Holmes wrote in an email to CNET News.com.

And at the top of HobbyHost's Web page is a message clearly stating that the company "does not and will not ever claim the rights to your hard work as other WebHosts are doing in their Terms of Service contracts."

Yahoo said that they believe the boycott is a result of a lack of clarification on the company's part.

"Our intentions were to remain true to what GeoCities' intentions were," Brady said.

 

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