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If it's on the Internet, does that make it quotable?

A Michigan newspaper writer was criticized for quoting public tweets without asking permission from their writers. To those who cried foul: What don't you understand about the word 'public'?

The news headlines in Grand Rapids, Mich., were dominated this week by local sports, a debate over wage raises for workers who receive tips, and a man who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for encouraging his dog to kill a raccoon. But there was also some newsroom controversy within the local Grand Rapids Press newspaper: Just how quotable is Twitter?

An entertainment reporter, Rachael Recker, wrote an article in which she quoted several Twitter users and identified them by username. For those of us accustomed to the tech press, this is no surprise--but for a local newspaper, it's unorthodox territory. Recker was met with criticism from readers as well as some of the Twitter users quoted, who, according to a column published earlier this week in the Grand Rapids Press, thought that the journalist "wasn't doing a full job of reporting, since she didn't contact them personally for a quote...(and) questioned whether it is appropriate to use tweets in an online story without specifically asking for permission."

This minicontroversy--if something is public on the Web, does that make it automatically open for quoting within the realm of copyright restrictions?--is not restricted to Twitter. One-to-one e-mails should be private. So should instant messages. Beyond that, it gets messy.

Question-and-answer site Quora has a little-known policy in which users can flag their answers, many of which are extensive and detailed, as "not for reproduction." Facebook, encouraging an ever-growing amount of public content, says in its terms of service that users grant it "a nonexclusive, transferable, sublicensable, royalty-free, worldwide license" to what they say and upload on the social network, but is very fuzzy on details when it comes to quoting and reproducing that content outside of Facebook. The Web has not just flooded the world with print content, it's flooded it with new kinds of content--public and semipublic e-mail lists, Facebook groups, blog comments, answers on question-and-answer sites--and the old rules of quotability don't always fit.

But here's somewhere to start: If something is public, it's quotable. If you don't want to be quoted, don't say it on the Internet. If you have a public Twitter account and say something, then, yes, it's public. Should Twitter users expect to be contacted and asked for permission to have their tweets reprinted? Don't count on it.

It can get a little more complicated, of course. Quora requires users to be logged in before they can browse anything, which means that content isn't completely public, and on Facebook it's hard to tell what isn't hidden behind any kind of contacts-only or co-workers-only restriction unless you log out and reload the page to see if it's still visible. So in both of those cases, quoting is significantly more ambiguous than on Twitter.

Then there's the Web's panoply of semipublic services, forums and groups and e-mail lists galore. I ran into this headlong when, in a story earlier this year, I quoted a user's post from NextNY, an e-mail list that I've been on since 2006 and to my recollection had joined without any trouble; the list openly solicits membership on its Web site, lists no reprinting policy, and has more than 3,000 members. I contacted that user to ask permission but didn't hear back, and with a deadline impending decided to just run with it. The user ultimately got back to me and asked if I might disassociate his name from the quotation. Digging a little deeper, I learned that the NextNY archives are not indexed in search engines, and while membership is openly solicited, I verified with an administrator that new users do have to be approved by a moderator. That was "nonpublic" enough for me. I ran a correction.

That was an instance in which the situation was ambiguous, but I now have a new rule of thumb for dealing with e-mail list and forum quoting in the future--and I now encourage my colleagues and acquaintances who administer e-mail lists to come up with policies for republishing content if they don't have them already. Journalists aren't the only ones who publish on the Web; a line from a semipublic e-mail list could easily be reproduced and disseminated by anyone with a Twitter account or a blog.

But in the case of the Grand Rapids Press incident, I side with Rachael Recker--as does her employer. "For the record, we consider tweets fair game for publication unless they appear in a direct message. Same goes for Facebook posts that are accessible to public viewing," the newspaper's column explained. "Almost everyone on Twitter retweets interesting comments, and no one asks permission to do so. You're sharing that person's observations with potentially thousands of people, depending if it is retweeted yet again."

(Or, potentially millions, if Ashton Kutcher comes across your tweet and decides he finds it brilliant.)

The Web is forcing us all to redefine what's public and what's private in many instances. We often don't know who might be listening, and we can never be sure who might be capable of broadcasting that information to the masses. In 5 or 10 years, we may have well-known rules and guidelines for dealing with quoting and republishing digital media--but not yet. GigaOM writer Mathew Ingram may have summed it up best in a tweet, which I am now quoting (how meta!) in which he riffed on the Quora "not for reproduction" policy.

"Here's a tip for anyone using the 'not for reproduction' thing on Quora," Ingram wrote. "Don't want your answer quoted? Don't put it on the Internet."