Finance

Michael P. Regan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering equities and financial services. He has covered stocks for Bloomberg News as a columnist and editor since 2007. He previously worked for the Associated Press.

There's a great quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain , about dealing with the press that goes something like this: Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.  

Bank of America must never have heard that quote, or else heard it and just paid it no mind. Someone working on the bank's behalf apparently asked Twitter to delete some tweets by Business Insider writer Jim Edwards on copyright grounds because they contained screen grabs showing snippets of research from analysts at the firm. (Business Insider, presumably, doesn't buy much ink at all, but you get the drift.) 

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Jim Edwards, Business Insider

This is quite an alarming story for those of us who buy pixels by the barrel because -- true confession time -- many of us in the financial press have done this exact same thing for years and no one seemed to ever complain. Sometimes it's to illustrate important research being done, but perhaps more often it's just for what the kids call the "lols."

Just this Monday I tweeted a screen grab of a Goldman Sachs stock-market note that contained multiple references to "Star Wars" and suggested that strategist David Kostin was one of countless middle-aged dudes having a hard time keeping his inner nerd on the inside when it comes to that movie. (In doing so, I also clearly revealed that I'm a middle-aged dude also having a hard time keeping his inner nerd on the inside.) Another time I tweeted a Bank of America graph of interest rates going back 5,000 years and suggested there was a good opportunity for a carry trade for anyone with a time machine.  I stand by that analysis.

The point is, whether the motivation is bad jokes or an actual desire to convey important market information, there are tweets with screen grabs from BofA research here and there and everywhere all over Twitter, including some posted just after Edwards' were purged. Just about every other bank's research finds its way to Twitter, too. The general thinking among the press has been that this type of thing is fine under the "fair use" doctrine that allows short snippets of copyrighted material to be reproduced for purposes like news reporting and criticism.  

Twitter has a long policy about copyright infringement that warns about this type of thing. However, it also has a long explanation of what is protected under "fair use" that makes it sound as if Finance Twitter is within its right to do this type of thing: "Uses of factual works are more likely to be protected (than fiction) … Short excerpts are more likely to be protected than copies of entire copyrighted works … Will the copying harm the potential market for the copyrighted work by effectively creating a substitute or replacement for that work? If so, the use is probably not fair use."

So, should anyone want to make a legal challenge out of this, it would present an interesting case. It's hard to argue that Wall Street does not have the right to rein this in. Let's say, hypothetically, months of research or some proprietary model yields a list of 10 stocks guaranteed to go up, is it "fair use" to tweet out a screen grab of the list? 

A better question, however, is whether it will be in the best interest of Wall Street firms to fight this fight. For one thing, there's the public relations risk. Edwards' piece makes Bank of America look pretty bad: "Investment banks apparently have the power to censor journalists on Twitter, simply by asking,"  he writes. He draws a comparison to George Orwell's book "1984," which may be a bit over the top, but the bank can't make him delete that!  

More important, the research-tweet purge seems to be clearly part of a larger strategy at hand when dealing with research -- to restrict it to paying clients instead of blasting it out and allowing it to roam free. As Bloomberg's Dakin Campbell reported in September, Bank of America started embedding reports into web pages rather than using  PDF files that are easily shared,  joining rivals Morgan Stanley and Citigroup in limiting access.  As a result, it won't be surprising if more tweets start disappearing. But by the time most research lands in the inboxes of the press, clients have had plenty of time to act on it, so what's really to be gained by demanding a months-old tweet be purged?

Part of Wall Street's motivation seems to be an attempt to simply figure out how valuable their research is. They might be surprised to find out that some of the real value is in the buzz the reports create in the media.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. And sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde.

To contact the author of this story:
Michael P. Regan in New York at mregan12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net