Yesterday I linked to a long piece by attorney Brock Shinen discussing whether individual posts to Twitter are copyrightable and asked:
Does this mean that nearly all of Twitter's content is in the public domain? Or can you copyright a collection of tweets...the entire output of one person, for instance?
Brock sent along a short reply to my question, reprinted here with his kind permission:
This is information and not advice: It's possible (and likely) that the majority of individual Tweets are in the public domain. But copyright protection may extend to a compilation of otherwise non-protectable Tweets. The question of whether 'you' can do that as opposed to the author of those Tweets is tricky and would depend on how it's done. If the compilation is authored in such a way as to suggest a false designation of origin (i.e., that the person compiling the Tweets actually authored them), you might run into false designation claims. Also, as a practical matter, you may still get sued and forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend a lawsuit you might otherwise win - if you can afford to get to trial. In the end, if you are a Tweet author and want to protect your Tweets, then you should probably compile them and seek protection with the US Copyright Office. If that works out for you, you're set. If the Copyright Office denies your application for registration, you have your answer.
In the opinion of intellectual copyright attorney Brock Shinen, the short answer is "no".
I admit, I think a protectable Tweet exists in theory. I have read hundreds if not thousands of Tweets and have yet to read one I believe would be protectable, but the possibility exists. The question is not: Are Tweets Copyrightable. The question is: Is This Tweet Copyrightable. The copyrightability of Tweets is not dependent on the fact that they are Tweets. Rather, it's dependent on the analysis of the Tweet in question. The all-encompassing response that all Tweets are either protected or not protected is misguided. The real response is that it depends. However, when you analyze most Tweets, they would never individually pass copyright muster.
Does this mean that nearly all of Twitter's content is in the public domain? Or can you copyright a collection of tweets...the entire output of one person, for instance? Let's say I want to publish Tweatise: The Wit and Wisdom of Merlin Mann, an unabridged book of Merlin's Twitter stream...can I do that?
Update: Another opinion: tweetCC.
tweetCC makes it easy for you to offer your tweets under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication or other Creative Commons licenses.
Update: Yet another perspective.