Can a tweet be protected by copyright? If so, who owns the copyright?

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Yes, a tweet can be protected by copyright.

This is a question that’s been in the news recently, after the text of a shirt worn by Frank Ocean and sold by an online retailer was discovered to have been copied from someone’s tweet without authorization.

A tweet is protected by copyright if the following criteria are satisfied:

  • The content must be original to its author, meaning the expression cannot be copied from someone else, and it must possess at least a minimal amount of creativity. For example, a tweet that merely lists the 5 most popular television shows in the country will likely not contain the requisite amount of creativity (remember facts aren’t protected). On the other hand, a tweet or thread of tweets containing commentary and analysis about what makes those 5 shows so popular would likely satisfy the requirement.
  • The tweet must contain something more than simply a name, single word, or short phrase, since these are not protected by copyright law. Although there is a 280-character limit, a lot can potentially be said in 280 characters or less. Additionally, twitter now allows for tweets to be “threaded,” which allows a user to post longer, cohesive messages, despite the character limit.

As for who owns the copyright, the key to answering a question like this is to read the site’s terms and conditions. Twitter’s Terms of Service state that as a user, “[y]ou retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. What’s yours is yours you own your Content (and your photos and videos are part of the Content),” although you also grant Twitter a license to use the content, which authorizes it “to make your Content available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same.” Based on this language, other twitter users are also licensed to copy and redistribute your posts by “retweeting” them.

So if you come across a particularly catchy tweet, it’s probably not the best idea to turn that tweet into a t-shirt line without permission.

If there are particular questions that we do not address in the FAQs or Copyright Law Explained sections on our website, please send us your question and we will try to respond with a post in our Ask the Alliance series.

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The information provided by the Copyright Alliance in this post is intended to educate you about copyright law and policy. The Copyright Alliance is not a law firm. We do not provide legal advice and this post does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please see more here.