Jan 23, 2013 · 3 minutes

"What is a Tweet anymore?" That's the question posed by Buzzfeed's Matt Buchanan today in response to Twitter's latest update to its embedded Tweets. While text and uploaded photos have for some time been included in embedded Tweets, now embeds can contain all the information on a Twitter card, like video, Flickr photos, Tumblr images, story summaries, and audio. And because they're embeddable they can go anywhere on the Web. Defining a Tweet as "140 characters on Twitter.com" barely scratches the surface.

But beyond the existential question raised by Buchanan, there's a bigger concern about Twitter's expanded embeddability: It's going to make what's already an awkward copyright and attribution situation even worse, and here's why:

The update comes days after a judge ruled that AFP and the Washington Post infringed on photographer Daniel Morel's copyrights by republishing pictures Morel had taken and posted to Twitter. Just because something's on Twitter doesn't mean anyone can post or print it without permission, the court said. A sound precedent, sure, but take a look at the judge's rationale: it was based on Twitter' TOS which says when you post something to Twitter, you allow the company to "reproduce" your photos, as long as it's done using the tools developed or sanctioned by Twitter (for instance, Retweeting). And according to what Twitter told Buzzfeed, "embedding" falls under those same rights. Ostensibly, that means all you'd need to do is embed the Tweet containing the copyrighted photo to avoid copyright infringement.

You could say, "Well if you don't want your photos shared on the Web without credit or compensation, don't upload them to Twitter." The trouble is, now that embedded Tweets include not only photos uploaded directly to Twitter, but also Flickr photos, images from Tumblr, article previews, videos, audio, and even some apps, the copyright implications of Tweets are thornier than ever.

For example, say I link to a Flickr photo that is copyrighted "All Rights Reserved," meaning I can't reproduce it without permission. (How do I know it's copyrighted? Because Flickr, unlike most social networks, actually makes this information clear whenever you view a photo). Remember, even though I've only linked to it, not uploaded it, Twitter automatically includes the full photo in the Twitter card. But now anyone can embed my Tweet, along with the copyrighted photo, anywhere they like. And according to the fuzzy precedent based on Twitter's own TOS, it might just be legal.

Proper attribution of content also becomes a concern. Some copyrights, like many Creative Commons licenses, allow you to use content freely as long as you credit the creator. But attribution is often muddled when Twitter displays content, particularly when that content has been "reblogged" at a site like Tumblr.

For example, the other day I Tweeted a link to Jason Oberholtzer's Tumblr, where he shared a funny timeline called "What We Know About Manti Te'o's girlfriend." The timeline was created by McSweeney's Ben Greenman, whom Oberholtzer credits on Tumblr. But when I shared the link on Twitter (and again there's no uploading going on, just posting a link) the Twitter card automatically populated the full image of the timeline as well as a byline for Oberholtzer since it came from his Tumblr. The only mention of Greenman is the one made by me in the text of the Tweet:

If you spend a lot of your day on Twitter, you're used to grappling with problems like attribution and sourcing (people like Maria Popova have proposed some interesting solutions). As a result, when you see something shared on Twitter, you're wise not to make any assumptions about its source or authenticity. But when a Tweet is set loose from its network, carrying with it video, photography, false attribution, and questionable copyright, it ceases to be a part of an ongoing, evolving conversation, and the best practices or expectations of that community no longer matter.

If Twitter wants to think of Tweets as atomized units of Internet (and judging by its "embed everything" mentality, it does) then we're going to have plenty more conversations about how to deal with copyright on Twitter. Because right now, the best answer to the question, "What is a Tweet?" is "A little copyright-proof package of content." And as YouTube learned when it was sued by Viacom, the party can't last forever.

[Image Credit: e_monk on Flickr]