Thanks to Craigslist, internet users can advertise pretty much anything (legal) on the namesake website, and reach a global audience in doing so.  The whole purpose of Craigslist is to provide a public forum for people to post advertisements relating to jobs, housing, and the sale of goods or services, among many other things.  For a website devoted to connecting those with mutually beneficial offerings, one would think the more publicity those advertisements get, the better, right?  Not if Craigslist has anything to say about it.

Last week, users noticed that Craigslist had changed its “Terms of Use,” asserting an exclusive license (as opposed to previously declaring only a non-exclusive license) over user content.  By doing this, Craigslist is essentially stating that it has copyright protection in the advertisements posted on its website, and can therefore prevent third parties from re-printing the material.  Many think that Craigslist has made such an aggressive move to publicly try to strengthen the credibility of its (likely) losing argument in a recent copyright-infringement suit.  Last month, Craigslist filed a complaint against defendants 3Taps and Padmapper for “mass-harvesting and redistributing” postings from its site.  Padmapper is a website that focuses on showing rental listings for houses and apartments.  As part of its listing, Padmapper would include information from housing advertisements that were originally posted on Craigslist.  Craigslist asserts that such “copying” harms its users by undermining the integrity of local Craigslist communities, and making users’ contact information available to a larger audience.

At the outset, Craigslist faces a major obstacle in this suit because it did not create the user content – the holder of the copyright should be the actual creator of the advertisement (the person who posted it).  Thus comes its bold next move in claiming an exclusive license over user content, something that has not been done by other internet-based companies like Facebook or Google, as one blogger pointed out.  Craigslist can try to claim an exclusive license all it wants, though simply doing so will not make it a reality.  Even if a court were to find the exclusive license valid, commentators have noted that such copyright protection would be very thin because the law can only protect the creative expression of an idea, not the facts underlying the idea.  Things like an address, or the price of a rental unit, are real-world facts that cannot be copyrighted by one person, making Craigslist’s argument a difficult one when saying that other sites cannot post that information in their search results.  It will be interesting to see whether the exclusive-license agreement will stand, and how the court will rule on the resulting copyright issue.  Craigslist users, any opinions?  Would you rather have your information remain on Craigslist alone, or have your advertisement reach a greater audience?

Katharine Skinner

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2 Responses to Craigslist: Advertising its Right to User Content

  1. Raymond Rufat says:

    I think this is problematic for Craigslist and I can see why they would take issue with the increased publicity of user posted ads. While users would theoretically welcome a wider pool of potential buyers for their items or services, they may have some expectation of a demographic that is seeking them out. Hypothetically, though this is a caricature of something that could actually happen, imagine someone selling a puppy on Craigslist. If dogfighting.com could mass-harvest all of the puppy listings and advertise them on their site it could harm Craigslist marketability. Users might be more reluctant to advertise if they know where their ads might be taken. Obviously, a dogfighter could simply go on Craigslist anyway, but it is less blatant.

  2. JL says:

    Interesting post, Katharine! While I agree that Craigslist’s “exclusive license” claims are weak, as a frequent Craigslist user, I am somewhat opposed to the ability of third parties to swipe Craigslist content and repost it elsewhere on the Internet. The majority of my concern stems from the lack of Craigslist user control associated with third party “mass-harvesting” and redistribution of user content. While Craigslist allows its users to remove their posts at will, if users do not know where their content has been re-posted, the content may remain on other websites long after it has been deleted from Craigslist. Do you think that there is a way for Craigslist to allow its users increased control over their posted material (i.e. to forbid third parties from re-posting)? The copyright issue is certainly a tricky one because, as you mentioned, many Craigslist posts include factual material (like addresses and prices) that are not copyrightable.