Yahoo Does the Right Thing (GeoCities Terms)

By , July 7, 1999

Today, Yahoo finally did the Right Thing, creating and posting new “Terms of Service” for its GeoCities web sites.  Yahoo has finally removed the unnecessarily broad license language it had earlier sought to trick “homesteaders” into accepting. The new terms of service are posted at http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/geoterms.html

Background: Ten days ago, on June 25, after combining the GeoCities web sites into its own “family,” Yahoo abruptly imposed a new “re-registration” requirement on all its GeoCities homesteaders, telling them that it was because “We just want to make sure all your member information is safe and secure after we combine our two databases” (emphasis added; see http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/geoterms.html).

But in fact, the re-registration was NOT “just” about combining databases: Yahoo sought to impose a dramatic change to the relationship with the GeoCities “homesteaders.”

The new Terms of Service required GeoCities homesteaders to grant to Yahoo,

“the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sublicensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed.” (http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/geoterms.html, section 8)

This amounted to a multi-billion dollar “rights grab” (or in the homesteading parlance, a “land grab”) by Yahoo, made even more offensive because the company tricked its “GeoCitizens” into accepting the new TOS without ever knowing that it represented a huge transfer of their legal rights.

In response to this obscene “rights grab,” many GeoCities homesteaders and consumer advocates condemned Yahoo and called for a boycott of the company. (You can see a time line of the boycott-related events at http://come.to/boycottyahoo)

In response to the public outcry, on Wednesday, June 30, Yahoo added two sentences to Section 8 of the Yahoo terms of service, but these changes did not alter the broad license in any meaningful way.

Then, late on Friday, July 2, Yahoo posted a fascinating “side letter” announcement about its Terms of Service, at http://docs.yahoo.com/docs/info/toshelp.html, in which the company purported to waive or release any claims in the TOS that exceeded the license it actually needed in order to display homesteaders’ content. But this side letter was legally not binding on Yahoo, and this duplicity served only to insult the former “GeoCitizens” who were upset at Yahoo.

At the same time, Yahoo told journalists that the boycott, which by then included thousands of GeoCities homesteaders, consisted only of “one or two” individuals. It seemed that the company just didn’t “get it.”

Today (Tuesday, July 6), in response to a request for an interview with CNBC, Yahoo told CNBC that the company would make no further changes to its terms of service, and that Yahoo refused to allow its employees to appear on-camera in any news story in which any former GeoCitizen spoke in favor of the Yahoo/GeoCities boycott.

NEW TOS: This evening, Yahoo changed its mind, and posted a new and separate “GeoCities Terms of Service” at http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/geoterms.html The new terms of service eliminate all of the “rights grab” language that was included in the original terms of service, and includes language that actually does limit Yahoo’s claims to its homesteaders’ intellectual property rights. (In fact, I think that Yahoo’s new GeoCities Terms of Service might not actually expressly grant to GeoCities all the legal rights that it may actually need to operate the service in the way it said it does, over the past week.)

EVERYONE WINS: So, in the end, everyone wins. Yahoo has responded to its customers’ reasonable requests, and has modified its terms to only obtain the legal rights it needs to operate its GeoCities service in essentially the same way that the service operated before the merger. Consumers win because they won’t lose important intellection property rights to the creative works they may choose to display at the GeoCities web site.

CAVEAT: I won’t pretend that Yahoo’s new terms of service are perfect, and I have not reviewed the entire new Terms of Service (this is not an “endorsement” of the new TOS). And I am not comfortable that non-GeoCities content submitted to Yahoo are still covered by the broad, sweeping “rights grab” language still included in the separate Yahoo Terms of Service. Nor do I think that Yahoo should be proud that it finally acceded to reasonable consumer demands only after failing to quash complaints through trickery, deceit, and delay.

But in the end, Yahoo finally did the Right Thing. I am withdrawing my call for a boycott of the company. I am pleased that consumers will now, once again, have one more reasonable choice of a free place to display original web pages for the world to see.

One Response to “Yahoo Does the Right Thing (GeoCities Terms)”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Yahoo closed its GeoCities service and sites in 2009:
    http://help.yahoo.com//l/us/yahoo/geocities/close/

    If you’re trying to find out what information was on a particular GeoCities page, use the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/web/geocities.php

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