A Cautionary tale of Copyright – be careful what you sign

The Ars Technica blog has posted a story about a dentist who was asking patients to sign a “mutual privacy agreement.” This sweeping agreement effectively means that for any blog comment, review post or letter to a local newspaper written by a customer, the copyright would be owned by the dentist. The dentist’s staff insisted the agreement was not to censor truthful comments about the dentist, but to give the practice a tool to remove fraudulent reviews, especially by non patients.

However, non patients, do not sign the contract so are not covered by it. Moreover US courts are unlikely to find that copyright has been validly transferred under the agreement. So the agreement is useless. Unless its purpose is to intimidate patients into being cautious about what they say about the dentist concerned, which raises interesting questions about the dentist patient relationship.

It could be that dentists (and other medical services) are using the agreement because they’ve been told it will solve any negative review problems without fully appreciating what the clause actually means – medical staff are not copyright experts.

In fact most people, including writers, are not copyright experts. A basic guide to English copyright law can be found here. But in any situation where you are asked to sign over copyright, tread carefully and ask the following questions:

  • Do you understand exactly what you are being asked to sign? If not, don’t sign and seek clarification.
  • If the person who asked you to sign can’t explain it or is reluctant to let you take the agreement away for legal advice, do not sign it. Any reasonable agreement would be clear, explainable and any organisation confident with the agreement would let you seek further advice before signing
  • Never, ever sign anything if you are pressurised to sign there and then.
  • Most magazines accept poems or stories on the basis of First British (or relevant country) Serial Rights, ie on the basis that they are publishing the story or poem for the first time in Britain (or the relevant country). Copyright remains with the writer. If the magazine does not specify this, you would be entitled to assume this.
  • If a magazine asks for World Serial Rights, ask yourself if you consider this fair. Your response may depend on what payment is being offered (and it should be generous) as this could also cover web publication.
  • If you are entering a writing competition, check the rules regarding copyright. Generally copyright is retained by the entrant but the competition organisers may reserve rights to use entries for publicity or to publish them in a website or in an anthology, these are perfectly acceptable.
  • Any competition which seeks to retain copyright of all entrants is not acceptable. You are effectively signing over copyright of your work and paying for the privilege (by paying the competition entry fee) of not being able to use your own work anywhere else (even if you are unsuccessful in the competition).
  • If you query the copyright clause with the organisers and are told that the clause is “not what they meant and copyright does remain with the entrant”, do not sign or enter the competition. If you sign or enter the competition where entry indicates acceptance of the competition rules, you have agreed to the unfair terms. If the rules do not reflect what the competition organiser intended, the rules should be changed to reflect intention. If something as basic as the rules of entry aren’t accurate, what does that say about the competition organisation?

Trying to restrict copyright is not an effective way of preventing negative reviews and provides no protection against fraudulent reviews, which are better dealt with as libel or defamation.


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