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I'm pretty sure Dorsey owns the copyright on his exact words (if they are capable of copyright and not just a pre-existing or generic text that's been used by others elsewhere), and that Twitter has a licence to use and monetise the tweet. But I don't know if ownership of a tweet is the same as copyrights holder, or licensee.

Ownership is usually synonymous in some sense with having exclusive rights to exploit and control. But does that apply to the tweet, after all, a tweet is not the same entity as the words it contains (nor is a book the same legally as the collection of words it contains).

If a tweet could be equated to it's words, then ownership would not be possible and what Dorsey actually sold was his copyright.

Is that what happened? Is a tweet (as distinct from the words it contains) legally capable of being owned? Could a tweet and the words in it be sold independently and have different owners/copyright owners, and does that have meaning in law?

Is the concept settled,or has it been tested in law (perhaps in a different/analogous field)?

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    As I understand it, he hasn't really sold the tweet itself, in any legal sense. He's selling a contract under which he will sign a certain digital certificate in a certain way as specified by the "buyer". The fact that people think of such a signature as conveying "ownership" of anything is purely in their minds. None of this has anything to do with the copyright or other IP rights in the text of the tweet (which from its length is probably not copyrightable anyway). Mar 6, 2021 at 19:40
  • The text says "Want to buy this tweet", not "want to have a customised certificate digitally signed carrying no legal meaning". So that might be one interpretation but it certainly seems that Dorsey and the buyer agree something's been bought, and not.just the copyright on it (if even copyrightable), or they would have said that......?
    – Stilez
    Mar 6, 2021 at 23:05
  • Have you read any of the news stories that explain the actual transaction? E.g. bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56307153. "Buy this tweet" is figurative. Mar 6, 2021 at 23:14
  • Yes, I read it. I doubt the BBC is a legal authority on abstruse points of IP law and capacity to be owned, though, so I think that's likely to be a non-answer.
    – Stilez
    Mar 7, 2021 at 1:31

1 Answer 1

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Brief Answer: The type of ownership relevant to your question is that over intellectual property; specifically: the copyright. The application of copyright law to tweets is currently a cutting edge area of law with no clear answers.

Longer Answer: Is a tweet copyrightable? Short phrases are not copyrightable. Prunte v. Universal Music Group, Inc., 699 F.Supp.2d 15, 30 (D.C. Cir. 2010). This is traditionally the domain of trademark law. This rule keeps copyright law from locking up the essential building blocks of art.

I personally think a tweet can't be copyrighted because it would do exactly that. If someone can copyright a tweet, someone could begin locking up tons of different common sentences.

But, you will definitely find lawyers who disagree with me.

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  • But can a tweet have a different legal existence than the set of words tweeted? After all, a book exists distinct from its words (and can be sold separately from copyright transfer by the author of their rights in the words it contains), a database exists distinct from its individual records. That the words are only owned/protected under copyright is obvious. What I'm curious is, if the tweet has any distinct existence in law, compared to the words it contains, that would make legal sense or nonsense of the idea of selling the tweet as opposed to selling the copyright in the words.
    – Stilez
    Mar 6, 2021 at 22:47
  • @Stilez well so a book has a distinct existence because it's chattel property. Usually the three types of property are real (land), chattel (personal), and intellectual. Maybe I'm not imaginative enough, but since the tweet doesn't have a physical form, I don't think it can have a separate existence. Also, on your database example, if it's purely an electronic database I think only intellectual property protection is what you get (if any).
    – user36183
    Mar 6, 2021 at 23:25
  • @Stilez Now, there are plenty of lawyer who spend their entire careers thinking of ways to create chattel property: these are transactional lawyers. Have a company? Great, let's have an IPO, divide your company up into a thousand different pieces, and then people can buy and sell them like apples. So, I don't know, is there a way a tweet or a stream of tweets (or the revenue from them) could be packaged up and turned into chattel property? Maybe. But, then that existence stems from the contracts that create it; that property wouldn't have any inherent existence from public law.
    – user36183
    Mar 6, 2021 at 23:27
  • One question suggests that maybe this isn't a vacuous legal question (but not perhaps about what the answer is in law). Ask, could a hypothetical owner of a tweet do anything beyond copyright owner actions? A book is a specific physical manifestation of the words. The book's owner can do things the words copyright-owner can't, because they are actions related to the book not the words. By analogy someone could sell rights associated with owning a tweet (deletion?), while retaining any copyright of the words. So asking what was sold, and that it might be other than the copyright, seems valid.
    – Stilez
    Mar 7, 2021 at 1:39
  • @Stilez sorry, I'm not sure I understand your question?
    – user36183
    Mar 7, 2021 at 2:40

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