Health bloggers bite back as Wellsphere sells on posts provided for free

Thanks to Robin for the parody of Wellsphere's logo.

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.

On Musings of a Distractible Mind, Dr Rob details his lucky escape from Wellsphere after 4 months of syndication provided him with zero extra traffic.

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 to resort to shock tactics to get her Wellsphere account deleted.

My Strong Medicine, Beyond Meds and The Butter Compartment have all also given their two penneth on the Wellsphere scandal.

Over on Twitter there is reams of discussion on the subject of WellsphereDr. Vijay Sadasivam, who blogs at Scan 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.

13 Responses to “Health bloggers bite back as Wellsphere sells on posts provided for free”

  1. Dr. Val Says:

    Excellent summary of the discussion, Helen. Thanks for this well-written post. :)

  2. Mary Says:

    I was also approached by them. Which was odd because my blog is pre-med and mostly personal. So I really don’t have a whole bootload of medical content on there. After a few e-mails from them, I finally responded with an e-mail that I posted with an explanation on my blog here : http://medi-medi-mary.blogspot.com/2008/11/i-politely-decline-your-invitation.html

    When first contacted, I e-mailed dr val about it because I had heard there was something fishy about them from her. So she let me know and I dealt with it. Val’s my hero! :)

    And this is a very awesome summary of things! Very well-written and organized and I love all the links! Especially sixuntilme’s post! She’s funny! Hee hee!

    Thanks for posting about all of this!

  3. Regina Says:

    I was emailed several times, but since I don’t (and have never) accepted corporate sponsorship, or any other type of sponsorship for my blog, I declined since they wouldn’t tell me how it was they planned to stay afloat financially….I didn’t want advertising for goodness knows what appearing when I won’t take paid advertisements on my blog! Good thing I declined – while I worried they’d make money from advertising dropped alongside blogger content, it turns out they are making money off the bloggers awayway by selling toff the content they aggregated….and have done that without compensating any of the bloggers! To me, that’s shameful.

  4. Ana Says:

    Hi Helen!
    I wrote this post:

    http://justana-justana.blogspot.com/2009/01/wellsphere-scandal-1800-contributers.html

    I’ve just received an e-mail and and Dr. Rutledge has deleted my profile and posts.
    Perhaps I will repost it with another title:
    “How to get out of Wellsphere” :)
    I believe that it was because of posts like yours that they realized that they had delete.
    Thank you very much!

  5. Strong One Says:

    I was never approached by them, but ‘GOSH-DARNIT!’ I came a breath away from joining since I saw so many other fellow bloggers as members.
    WHEW..
    Great summary!

  6. Mark Johnson Says:

    Wow, thanks for the well-written summary. I was a former product manager of Wellsphere and left on my 6 week mark after determining that the management was unscrupulous and shady. I was glad to get out of there. Subsequent to my short tenure there, I’ve come into contact with dozens of former disgruntled employees: I wasn’t the only one who walked out. We have lots of stories to tell.

    Before this blog debacle, there was the first launch of Wellsphere. You might want to check out posts at Uncov and the comments at Techcrunch from their first launch.

    Happy to chat with you – just drop me an e-mail.

    Cheers,
    Mark Johnson, Former Wellsphere Product Manager.

  7. Sherril Johnson Says:

    When Wellsphere sold to Health Central and I subsequently realized I had misunderstood the fine print when I joined Wellshpere and had signed away the intellectual property rights to my blog, I sent this email to every Wellsphere contact address I could find on 1/20/09 at 12:35 a.m.:

    Wellsphere
    1730 S. El Camino Real
    Suite 600
    San Mateo, CA 94402
    (650) 345-2100

    To whom it may concern:

    Please remove my blog from your list immediately. The faster you get this done, the better the chances are that I will cool down enough to forget about the really negative blog post on the whole Wellsphere Scam that’s brewing in my mind right now. As a matter of fact, I’m angry enough to consult a lawyer about it if you don’t stop pulling in my RSS feed, immediately.

    The reasons for my withdrawal are expressed eloquently on Musings of a Distractable Mind, All Is Not Well(Sphere).

    Sherril Johnson
    The Invisible Chronic Illness Experience Blog

    The same day, 1/20/09, at 3: 32 p.m. I received this response:

    Hi Sherril,

    I wanted to let you know that we have deleted your profile and posts on Wellsphere from your blog at theiciexperience.blogspot.com/.

    I wondered if you might like to connect with me personally, perhaps with a chat by phone.

    Feel free to call me on my cell, 650 868-0197, or send me your number and a time, and I’ll be happy to call you.

    Cheers, Geoff

    Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD

    Chief Medical Information Officer

    Wellsphere Inc.

    Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

    (650) 345-2100

    And it’s true. All of my content is gone from the Wellsphere site and I no longer have any kind of account there. So thanks to the Blogosphere for lighting a fire under some rear ends that had the power to right this wrong. I hope it’s righted, anyway… and they’re not hiding my content somewhere to whip out when things cool off…

    Sherril

  8. Sherril Johnson Says:

    P.S. The dates on both of the emails quoted above should be 1/30, not 1/20.

  9. Ana Says:

    I’ve said they deleted but when I google my blog there are still posts and images with the wellsphere link.
    Some photos are mine.

  10. Ana Says:

    Hi Hellen,
    I’ve published yous parody at my blog. This is the post:
    http://justana-justana.blogspot.com/2009/03/mr-george-rutledge-from-wellsphere.html
    Thank you.
    If you have any problem please, tell me.
    love
    Ana

  11. Singletude Says:

    If anyone is still trying to extract themselves from the Wellsphere scam, you may be encouraged to read this part of their HealthBlogger Network Participation Agreement, which I’ve taken the liberty of quoting:

    “You hereby grant Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, license to use, reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display your Health Blogger Content on Wellsphere.com. If you request that any of your Health Blogger Content be removed from Wellsphere.com, the foregoing license shall terminate and such Health Blogger Content shall be promptly removed from Wellsphere.com. To make such a request, please email Wellsphere at support@wellsphere.com.”

    So as long as you request that your content be removed, Wellsphere has no further legal authority to use it. I hope that’s comforting to some of those who have been duped or who, like me, just had their blog content ripped, like it or not! I’m trying to spread the word about this.

  12. sarah Says:

    And that isn’t even the tip of it.
    The real scam by wellsphere is that they tell you to put their widget on your blog which means you’re linking to their site while they put a rel nofollow on the link to your blog from their site… that is a nasty SEO trick.

  13. Kirtan Says:

    Terrible company. Complete thieves. DO NOT JOIN WELLSPHERE.