The founder of the Hillary Clinton-inspired Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, Libby Chamberlain, announced this week that she had signed a deal with Flatiron Books to publish a book based on the group’s posts. But news of the deal sparked a backlash among many of the group’s members, and raised questions about both the legality and the ethics of the deal.
In a post to the group Monday, Chamberlain said she was “beyond excited” to share news of the deal, telling members it was “a book of YOU. A book BY YOU.” Many of the group’s 3.9 million members are failing to see it that way, however—instead seeing the deal as profiteering, and a betrayal.
“This group is bigger than her,” one member succinctly noted in a comment. “It isn't her unilateral decision to make!”
So, is Chamberlain within her legal rights to create such a book? According to lawyers PW spoke to, and details released thus far, she is on solid ground. There is nothing in Facebook’s terms of service that precludes Chamberlain from using posts to the group in a book project. And Chamberlain has stressed that she will secure permission from individual posters, and that participation in the book will be strictly voluntary.
In a post to the group, Chamberlain promised members that: “No post, image, comment, name, or other information shared in the group will be used in the book without explicit, written permission (and a legal release to use the material) from the author and/or photographer.” She added that she will “personally be in touch with every potential contributor” to “clarify this process, answer any questions, and make sure that permission is being given with a full understanding of how the post and any accompanying information will be used.”
That actually clears a higher bar than is likely legally necessary, and lawyers said that an author would have a pretty solid fair use argument for using portions of posts for which permission is not secured, even though Pantsuit Nation is a "secret" group, meaning that only members can view the posts on Facebook. Although, experts agree, it would be unwise for the project to rely on fair use.
Legal questions aside, the thornier question is whether Chamberlain breached the group’s ethics.
”As long as the book's inclusions are being published with permission, then everything is cool between Chamberlain and the original posters,” explained James Grimmelmann, Professor of Law, Cornell Tech. But, he acknowledged, “there's something a little off-putting about the way she turned around and sprung this on the community without discussing it and made it her book deal, rather than a chance for the community to speak. It's problematic because it misunderstands the nature of the community, and the relationships of people in and around it.”
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who is writing a book about Facebook, agreed. “I would hope that she is taking into account the fact that the members of Pantsuit Nation were not posting with any sort of understanding or assumption that their work would be used in another context or outside the group,” he told PW. “If she wants her movement to have credibility in the future, she will have to understand and be sensitive to the special relationship that members of that group had to that moment in history, and to the group.”
Perhaps Chamberlain’s biggest mistake was a failure to communicate—specifically, her failure to first discuss with members the possibility of a book deal and other future plans for the group. In her follow-up post, Chamberlain said that proceeds from the book “will support Pantsuit Nation and the causes that are central to the group,” and that she is setting up nonprofit organizations. But that those plans were not firmed up and the nonprofits were not yet set up, helped to sow confusion and suspicion among members.
Still, that doesn't have to be a fatal mistake. "I think the ethical issue is something that [Chamberlain] can repair with good dialogue and expressions of good faith," said Grimmelmann. "By showing the right kind of respect for the members of the community, and recommitting to the values that brought them together, it becomes the kind of thing for which forgiveness and healing are possible."
Vaidhyanathan agrees, and said that Chamberlain's book can be a positive development. "If she can tell a good story, and can promote the efforts and hopefully the ideals of the group, then she can add value to the movement.”
Flatiron said it plans to release the book next May.