Craigslist’s big bluff

Craigslist says it can use the classified ads written by its users as the basis for copyright lawsuits. The claim is a legal longshot at best and the latest act of aggression from a site once known for its idealism.

In case anyone missed it, Craigslist last month sued PadMapper, a popular site that helps people find apartments by showing listings (including ones from Craigslist) on a map. This week, Craigslist clamped down further on potential rivals by changing its terms of service.

As reported by the blog Baligu, Craigslist has made the unusual decision of telling users it has an exclusive license to the copyright in their listings. In practical terms, this means that if you decide to sell your bike on Craigslist and another website picks up that listing, Craigslist can sue the other site.

The problem here is that Craiglist doesn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on. According to law professor Richard Gold, an intellectual property scholar at McGill University, it’s difficult to assert copyright over the simple facts in a classified ad:

“There are only a few ways to advertise a given object and copyright cannot be used to prevent the listing of the same object on another service. Since the wording of the ad will inevitably be very similar, the copyright protection would be thin.”

Gold adds, “There are obviously anti-trust concerns here as well.”

So why is Craigslist going on a limb with such a shaky legal claim? The best guess is that it’s a bluff intended to scare off other small companies that tap into its listing.

In the short term, the legal shtick might frighten people into letting Craigslist keep tight control of its listings. But in the longer term, it seems certain to exacerbate the ill will building up toward the site and its founder, Craig Newark (who today published a meditation about remaining serene in the face of online insults).

(Image by CREATISTA via Shutterstock)