Wellsphere, a health community website that brings together information from more than 1,500 medical experts and bloggers, has been sold to HealthCentral Network, a collection medical information websites and condition-specific portals.
Dr Geoffrey Rutledge, Chief Medical Information Officer of Wellsphere, generated content for his site by sending flattering emails to thousands of medicine and health bloggers (sample text “I want to tell you I think your writing is great”, “we are building a network of the web’s leading health bloggers – and I think you would be a great addition”). Bloggers gave Wellsphere permission to publish the entire RSS feed of their site, i.e. posts they had already written, in return for exposure for their blog and more traffic.
However, the small print of Wellsphere’s terms and conditions states that by giving Wellsphere permission to reproduce their posts, bloggers automatically grant the company “a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials[.]” (Thanks to Symtym for checking this out)
Bloggers who allowed Wellsphere to replicate their posts have suddenly realised that content they happily provided free is no longer theirs and has been sold off to HealthCentral for a profit, and boy are they mad.
Exactly how much HealthCentral paid for Wellsphere has not been disclosed, but neither company is short of cash. Techcrunch reports that Wellsphere has raised $3 million in funding from venture capitalists, whereas HealthCentral has $50 million in capital. Bloggers are fuming that such well endowed companies haven’t given them a share of the pie, or even consulted them about the consolidation deal.
On the other hand, HealthCentral’s CEO Christopher Schroeder told the Wall Street Journal Health Blog that most bloggers “are happy and we hope with all our resources and quality-content background we will really strengthen these engagements”. Fat chance, says the blogosphere. Interestingly, his colleague Jeremy Shane told Medical Marketing & Media that “Wellsphere’s bloggers may be monetized through the placement of banners and other advertising”. Hmm…
For the benefit of other Europeans like me who were happily sleeping while the Wellsphere debacle kicked off in the US, here’s a roundup of the reaction across the blogosphere.
Writing on on Getting Better, Dr Val Jones asks “Is this the biggest scam ever pulled on health bloggers?”, whereas over on Science-based Medicine she goes a step further and calls for “the medical/science/health blogosphere to rise up ‘Motrin moms-style’.” (Last year Motrin, a company that sells analgesic medicines, tried to sell product to Mums who carry their child in a sling or a wrap by pointing out that this practice could cause back pain, and also for good measure said that ‘baby carrying’ was a fad that made Mums look “tired and crazy”. Unsurprisingly, Mums didn’t take kindly to this and headed to the internet in droves to voice their outrage, eventually forcing Motrin to take down the offensive advert and apologize to each Mother who had complained). Dr Val discusses the issue at more length in yesterday’s Doctor Anonymous show.
Jenni Prokopy, Editor of ChronicBabe.com, is sympathetic to bloggers who feel short changed by Wellsphere’s actions. She does point out, however, that blogging constitutes proper publishing and as such writers should be thinking about getting paid and about their rights regarding copyright and intellectual property.
Theresa Chan, author of Rural Doctoring, is nervous about possible sinister outcomes of Wellsphere’s approach to content. “What if they decided to compile and publish a book for sale on their site, entitled 1001 Health Tips From Real Doctors, and proceeded to include one of my posts verbatim, along with posts by a proponent of chelation therapy for operable coronary artery disease and an anti-vaccination followers of Jenny McCarthy?”, she asks. “Their Terms of Service would give them the right to use my post in their book, and I would have no control over the implications of association with other content I strongly oppose.” Kevin, M.D. likewise is suspicious of Wellsphere’s motives, and asks “Is WellSphere a scam, and is its leadership laughing all the way to the bank after the HealthCentral acquisition?”.
Ana, a Brazilian who writes about mental health, tried to get out of Wellsphere mere days before the storm kicked off – I wonder how she’s getting on, as diabetes patient Kerri Morrone Sparling of SixUntilMe had toresort to shock tactics to get her Wellsphere account deleted.
Over on Twitter there is reams of discussion on the subject of Wellsphere. Dr. Vijay Sadasivam, who blogs atScan Man’s Notes, points out a 2007 expose of office life at Wellsphere, and TrishaTorrey notes that Wellsphere are on Twitter themselves (@wellsphere) and should be copied in on any complaints.
And me? I was also approached by Wellsphere last year but turned down their offer mainly on the basis of their shonky web design. I thought their homepage was completely unhelpful, giving away nothing about what the site was for, and their WellPages portals, although packed with pretty good content, weren’t exactly easy to find or navigate. I also read a post from August 2008 on the Neurocritic blog and took heed of their gossip on Wellsphere’s employees and business approach, and read on The Assertive Cancer Patient about how ill advised it is to sign away your blog – your own intellectual property – to a company like Wellsphere.
Like the Assertive Cancer Patient, I am also a freelance writer. Although I happily blog for free – for pleasure and as an online CV – I know that if I chose to I could sell the same quality writing, or even the exact same post, to a newspaper or magazine; thus, giving it away is just silly.
So where does this leave bloggers? If you’re happy with the exposure Wellsphere is giving your blog then you don’t necessarily need to do anything, but most bloggers are severely irked by how they have been treated by the company and are doing their best to delete their account.
If anything, this whole kerfuffle has been a lesson to the whole blogosphere on the importance of protecting your intellectual property online (check CreativeCommons.org for more info on this subject) and on how crucial it is to read the small print.