Consider yourself warned: If you’re operating a blog on Tumblr and the site receives a complaint that you’ve used copyrighted material, it can -- and will -- shut down your account, erasing everything you’ve ever posted.
That’s exactly what happened to a popular blogger who goes by the name Bohemea. When Tumblr shut down her account in June, she lost five years of work -- more than 100,000 posts across two separate blogs. Tumblr did this because over the past two years, the company had received five complaints from copyright holders who said Bohemea had used photographs without permission.
Bohemea, who asked me to use only her screen name, says she would have been happy to just take down the five images for which Tumblr received a complaint ... but instead, Tumblr deleted her entire account. Worse, Bohemea claims other Tumblr bloggers have been similarly wiped out.
Bohemea’s blog wasn’t aimed at a business audience. Her blogs were about fashion, art, and photography, and some of her content was of the "NSFW" (not safe for work) variety.
Nevertheless, her experience might serve as a cautionary tale for marketers who use Tumblr to promote a brand. As my colleague Pamela Vaughan recently reported, it’s pretty easy to use copyrighted material incorrectly, even if you have the best intentions. And then all it takes is for Tumblr to get a complaint or two, and whammo -- the company might shut you down.
A spokesperson for Tumblr says: “Tumblr removes any content we receive a valid DMCA complaint for. We are also required by law to enforce a policy removing accounts of repeat infringers.”
Tumblr’s right to do this is spelled out in its Terms of Service, and even though nobody ever actually reads those things, in theory you’ve been warned.
Are Brands At Risk?
Brands have been drawn to Tumblr because it’s a huge site and incredibly popular among young people. Tumblr hosts more than 100 million blogs, and draws 300 million unique visitors per month. That’s why Yahoo agreed to pay $1.1 billion for Tumblr in May even though the site’s revenues are negligible.
“If done right, a business blog on Tumblr can create some of the most intense brand loyalty and evangelism of any social medium,” says Catherine Balboni, a business development manager at Senior Financial Resources in Boston and an avid Tumblr user.
But shutdowns like the one that happened to Bohemea could scare business bloggers away, Balboni says. The Bohemea incident “has incited a questioning of trust within the Tumblr community itself, which could quickly impact the influencers to leave the platform if incidents like these become the norm,” she says.
Companies like Denny’s and Oscar de la Renta operate active Tumblr blogs. But “for businesses that either already have a presence on Tumblr or are considering it, this incident adds a level of uncertainty,” Balboni says.
What Happened to Bohemea’s Blogs
Bohemea’s Tumblr blogs were devoted to sharing images she liked and promoting artists whose work she admired to her 150,000 followers. She says she always tried to cite the source of each image she used and to give credit to the photographer -- she wasn’t trying to steal anything or take advantage of anyone. Quite the opposite: she was trying to promote their work. Furthermore, she wasn’t making any money off her blogs. It was just a labor of love.
Nonetheless, Tumblr shut her down, and told her that if she tried to start another Tumblr blog they would shut that down too.
Bohemea is starting up again, but not on Tumblr. She's launched a new website, and hopes to build a business around her blogging and commentary. But she says Tumblr's decision has set her back.
"I lost over 100,000 posts and 150,000 followers," she says. "I have lost a huge viewership that I'm going to have to work very hard to gather and take with me to my new site."
A Tumblr spokesperson points out that Tumblr did offer to help Bohemea contest the complaints. Bohemea says doing that would have required her to provide personal information about herself and she wanted to remain private, so she declined the offer.
The point of Bohemea's story isn't that copyright infringement should be the norm -- in fact, she says she does not contest the legitimacy of the complaints. She agrees that copyright holders can control the use of the images. She just argues that she made an innocent mistake, and that shutting down her entire account because of five complaints out of 50,000 posts might be a bit extreme.
The Bigger Issue
The incident raises some larger issues. One is that enforcement of rules online can often be arbitrary and selective. Tumblr, for example, is crawling with copyright violations. Why do some bloggers get busted while others carry on?
And even larger issue is that so much of what we do online, whether as individuals or as corporate brand builders, involves putting time and energy and resources into platforms that we don’t control, and that can be pulled out from under us on a whim.
Think how much time, effort and money your brand has invested in Facebook, for example. Whether you’re talking about Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or any other social platform, the fact is we are all building castles on sand.
“You click `I Agree’ on these long terms of service agreements, but no one reads them and you have no clear idea what you’re agreeing to. The companies don’t police the sites with any regularity or consistency," says Nicco Mele, an internet consultant, faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of The End of Big, a book that grapples with the issue of internet platforms and the rights of people and companies that use them.
As Mele sees it, the problem is that users don’t have sufficient rights. “There is no clearly defined recourse if you believe they [a platform operator] have done something in error,” he says. “There’s no phone number to call, no email. Just a form. You’re in a black hole. The sum total is a gross violation of the rights of users.”
Mele points to incidents where people have had online accounts shut down without warning and without recourse. Both involved Google. One happened in 2008. The other happened in 2011 and involved a guy losing seven years of material.
Bohemea’s advice: If you’re using any of these platforms to build your brand, be aware of the bargain you’re making. And be aware that enforcement of the rules can be arbitrary and selective. Maybe it's time brands start doubling down on content they actually own, rather than putting all their money in platforms they can't control.
If you do decide to focus on the platforms you don't control, make backups of everything you post. Someday you might need them.
Image credit: Horia Varlan