Go ahead, use that tweet: no one can stop you!

On Monday, a movie marketing stunt touched off a curious discussion over when and how we can quote tweets. The episode reflects the growing influence of Twitter but, fortunately for free speech advocates, it won’t change what we can say.

In case you missed it, the debate turned on CBS’s(s cbs) decision to promote its film Inside Llewyn Davis with a full-page ad in the New York Times that depicted a partial Twitter quote from the Times’ own movie critic, A.O. Scott. The ad cost $70,000 and looked like this (via the Wrap):

Llewyn Davis ad

CBS got its money worth. The Hollywood press buzzed about the ad and Scott’s reaction to it and, by Monday, some were asking if the ad was “legal” under Twitter’s terms of service. Finally, the New York Times public editor put a cherry on CBS’s sundae with a 1000 word recap and some hand-wringing about the ethical implications of the whole thing.

All this is at best quaint, at worst tremulous, because there’s nothing to stop CBS or anyone else from quoting a tweet. And, for press freedom advocates, it’s strange to hear normally bold members of the media debate whether they should refrain from quoting an important news source.

I spoke with Brad Greenberg, a copyright and media scholar at Columbia University, and he was hard-pressed to think of ordinary situations where people can’t quote tweets. He likened the practice to quoting headlines or other short pieces of information or opinion that may lie outside the bounds of intellectual property protection and, if not, would be covered by fair use.

There are, of course, some situations where a tweet could give rise to legal action — perhaps if it cast someone in a false light or wrongfully endorsed something — but that’s not the case with the A.O. Scott tweet. Studios have quoted movie critics in ads for decades, and that’s not going to stop.

As for Twitter’s terms of service, companies can assert whatever terms it likes, but that doesn’t mean it can enforce them. (Gigaom, for instance, could stipulate that anyone who reproduces its article must hand over their first-born child — but it probably wouldn’t work).

In this case, Twitter’s invocation against advertising appears in its “guidelines,” which are not part of its contract with users. If the company was truly displeased with CBS and the New York Times, it could, of course, close their Twitter accounts in retaliation, but it would be crazy to try this.

Twitter, to be fair, chose not to weigh in on l’affaire Lleywn, instead telling the Next Web that it doesn’t comment on individual policy violations. And realistically, like CBS, the company is probably kicking back and enjoying the publicity.

Finally, there is the matter of A.O. Scott himself, who told the Times and other media outlets that he had not given permission to CBS to use the tweet, and especially not a partial version of it. Once again, though, Scott’s feelings are irrelevant here. CBS may have committed a professional discourtesy, but that’s not the same as a legal violation — and in any case, it’s hard to believe he’s that upset about seeing his personal brand splayed in the center of a New York Times page.

The bottom line is that the episode is just an other example of Twitter’s emergence as a media behemoth, but for the purposes of speech and media freedom, it doesn’t change a thing.

And, as for Inside Llewyn Davis, here’s some more publicity for a solid (if decidedly un-cheery) Oscar contender: