Today, an American corporation dominated by Sequoia Capital seized effective ownership rights over millions of images, but you won’t hear a peep about it.
CafePress is a print-on-demand corporation that works by building relationships with people in two ways. The first is familiar: CafePress sells products, including t-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers. The second relationship is an innovation: over the past decade, CafePress has convinced many thousands of artists and graphic designers to place their work for sale on CafePress’ website on products of the designers’ choosing. Designers have retained ownership of and control over their designs while receiving a commission when a product sells.
Today, with the introduction of a new Content Owner Agreement, the nature of that relationship has changed. For designers who sell on CafePress’ Marketplace, the following terms apply:
4. Licensing Your Content to CafePress.
In uploading any of your Content to the Website, you grant to CafePress a royalty-free, worldwide, transferable, nonexclusive, right and license in such Content, in all media existing now or created in the future: (i) to permit you to use the COS to design, produce, market and sell Products, and (ii) to promote, market and advertise your Products, your shops, the CafePress Marketplace or the CafePress Service generally. Without limitation, this promotion, marketing, or advertising may consist of: (i) display of your Products, (ii) promotional “streams” of audio Content on the Website, (iii) display of pages from book Products on the Website, (iv) Product or Content placement in magazines, television shows, movies, and other media; (v) the sale of Products available in the CafePress Marketplace through third party product feeds, whether at retail prices, discounted prices, promotional prices, or as otherwise determined by CafePress in its sole discretion; and (vi) the sale of Products available in the CafePress Marketplace to other retailers, wholesalers, distributors or businesses at pricing as determined by CafePress in its sole discretion. CafePress may sublicense the rights that you grant it in this Section. This Section 4 only gives CafePress the right to use your Content for the purposes stated above, and does not give CafePress ownership of any of your Content.
CafePress may assert that this Section “does not give CafePress ownership of any of your Content,” but in effect it does. The Collins English Dictionary defines “ownership” as the “legal right of possession,” and in this agreement CafePress asserts just that: the right to take your design, to sell it on its own website, at other websites, and to create sublicenses for “other retailers, wholesalers, distributors or businesses” to do the same. It can compensate you for all this at any (or no) price at its sole discretion, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s possession.
Oh, I forgot this last part. If you don’t like the terms CafePress just stated, designers, then tough luck: you can’t get back control over your images from CafePress any more:
9.2 Account Termination. If you are a user of our COS, you may terminate your Account for any reason at any time by completing the online account termination form.
9.3 Effect of Termination. If you or CafePress suspend or terminate your Account, CafePress may, without being liable to you or any third party: (i) delete any Content or other materials relating to your use of the COS, and (ii) not allow you to access your shops or create, produce, market, or sell Products. If you or CafePress terminate your Account, you must immediately remove all links to the Website from any websites you operate and cease representing yourself as a user of our COS.
9.4 Survival. The following Sections will survive termination of your Account: 1, 3, 4, 5.2 through 5.5, 6.4, 7, 8, 9.3, and 9.4.
That’s possession, and whatever word CafePress wants to use for it, effectively it is ownership.
Off of the CafePress website, there have no reactions to this change in terms by any of the thousands of artists and designers who work with CafePress. In CafePress forums, “I’d love to leave but I need that paycheck” is the typical reaction.
Spokesmen for “free enterprise” might assert that this sort of thing is standard in business, and they’d be right, even though that doesn’t make it right. Corporations with an interest in maximizing their extraction of capital may begin on good terms with their workers, but have a habit of tightening terms, demanding more control and shrinking pay as time goes on. This is what the modern corporation does to people: it reduces them from a subject to an object, using the surplus value of their labor as a means to accomplish that. The largely mute reaction of CafePress designers to the appropriation of their work is an indicator of just how effectively CafePress has tightened its grip and squashed designers’ spirits.
Irregular Times withdrew two years ago from the CafePress Marketplace after seeing the writing on the wall. We suggest other designers do the same now. We don’t expect them to: that would require a defiance that’s been lacking among American workers for a generation.