The Ryze surprise

A fast-growing business networking site riles some members by -- gasp! -- laying claim to their intellectual property.

Published October 2, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

For a refugee from the dot-com boom, skimming through the member pages on Ryze, a 1-year-old business networking site, is like a do-it-yourself VH1 "Behind The Music" special on the golden boys of 1999. Remember Jason McCabe Calacanis, the brash editor in chief of "Silicon Alley Reporter"? His page reveals that here in the NASDAQ-1200 days of October 2002, he's still keeping the start-up faith, as the editor and CEO of the rebranded Reporter, now called "Venture Reporter."

And Calacanis' page links to his friends, more big names from those dot-com days, like Andrew Beebe, the former CEO of BigStep, and Scott Heiferman, former CEO of itraffic. It's like a "Where are they now?" for the blue button-down set.

"You end up connecting with a bunch of people who you'd lost touch with," says Jo Ann Mandinach, a search-engine consultant in Palo Alto, who says that she's gotten a couple of job interviews by reconnecting on Ryze. "You see networks of friends of friends, which is fascinating."

"It's six degrees done right," says Andrew Kraft, a sales and marketing consultant in Neshanic Station, N.J., who says he's gotten "several thousand dollars" of business from the hour a day that he spends networking on the site.

The connection gimmick is simple. Members link to their friends who are also among the system's members. Paging through their profiles is like being able to peek into an acquaintance's or even a total stranger's contact database; it's a kind of Web voyeurism for professionals.

New members fill out a template of basic information about themselves: what they do, where they've worked, where they went to school and what they do for fun. Depending on how much you pay a month -- from nothing to $10 -- you can conduct increasingly elaborate searches, trolling for all Austin-based members who are into biking or all CFOs working in New York. Members form online "tribes" based on their shared interests, and even throw off-line events to mix it up face-to-face.

At first glance, Ryze looks like an example of old-school bootstrap, do-it-yourself Internet community emerging from the dot-com junk heap. But as is the case with so many virally growing communities, the members don't always have the same ideas as the founders about how the site should be run. And they particularly didn't like the idea that Ryze might claim as its own property every personal bit of information that the members posted on their Ryze Web pages.

Adrian Scott, 29, a disarmingly gregarious engineer, runs the site from his South of Market loft in San Francisco. Back in the day, he threw networking mixers, dubbed "The Web of Finance," at his loft, drawing 80 to 100 people at a time, from a mailing list of some 2,500. He created Ryze to figure out ways that people in that network could "connect when they weren't in the same room."

In a year of friends inviting friends to join, the service has grown to more than 15,000 members, with clusters in New York, L.A., Chicago and the Bay Area. And it scrapes by with a modest profit, according to its one-man-band community organizer, Scott, who has not taken any investment dollars to run the site.

But Scott's plans for Ryze have grown and mutated just as the site itself has prospered. All those networking entrepreneurs and professionals were a resource just waiting to be exploited.

The problems began at the end of July, when a handful of Ryze members actually bothered to read the site's policies and found that everything that they'd posted -- words and images -- now belonged to Ryze.

Some community members reacted vociferously. Dennis Wilen, a Web designer whose credits include creating Spinal Tap's site, griped in one online discussion about Ryze: "Adrian is a vampire looking to suck intellectual property from his users so he can live."

For a graphic designer like Wilen, who'd been rotating in seven or eight new original graphics a week to his Ryze page to show off his work, the rights grab was boggling. "Ryze could sell the rights to use that image, like, to Purina Dog Chow. It could become a dog chow label, and I won't ever see anything of it."

The nature of the Ryze site -- business networking -- makes it logical for members like Wilen to upload examples of their work, although most members post little more than photos of themselves and personal information.

Scott's response to this accusation of being the Web entrepreneur equivalent of a supernatural bloodsucker was demure: "I think what the other members say about the site in their testimonials answers him better than I could." And, he adds, "Wilen's still a member."

But even Scott admits the original policy went too far: "We own everything -- to summarize," he says. "Our initial legal policies were really very harsh. I was just one guy doing the site and I needed to put something in there to limit my liability."

So when members made a fuss in the general bulletin boards on the site, Scott responded by changing the policy. "Anything that you create that you upload you'll retain the copyright to. But we retain a non-exclusive license to do a lot of stuff with it." And that remains true even if members choose to leave the community.

Scott maintains that he needs to retain these rights to grow the service in the future. But some members are wary. "He's claiming these rights in perpetuity and for affiliates that may occur later. We don't really know who they are," says Jon Lebkowsky, a Web developer in Austin.

The problem is, neither does Scott, since he's still building out the service. "I don't know the full range of possible services, and we're just trying to give ourselves the opportunity to do new and different things for our members without locking ourselves in ahead of time."

Wilen has removed his graphics from the site, and stopped recommending that friends join it, since he thinks the way that it's being run is contrary to its stated purpose: business networking.

It really comes down to how much trust should individual members put in Adrian Scott?

"If you know Adrian, he's not going to take your picture and throw it on a different Web site, and make money off of it," says an exasperated Sean Ness, who is sick of the griping about the site's policies from what he sees as a few "nitpicking" members. A salesperson for eSelf, a Bay Area software company, Ness runs a Hiking tribe on Ryze that has 329 members, with as many as 120 people showing up for some events.

Besides, one man's intellectual property is another man's trash, as far as he's concerned: "People don't really post valuable IP on there," says Ness. "If you really have intellectual property, it's got to be valuable to somebody other than yourself."

Kraft, the sales and marketing consultant in New Jersey, says he contacts 40 to 50 new people a day on Ryze, and that it's natural for a site full of networking consultants who make a living off their intellectual property to get prickly about who owns what.

But he's still uploading a weekly column to the BizDev Network tribe that he runs on Ryze, because he thinks that anything that helps the network grow ultimately benefits him. "If you put something up there that makes you look good, why the heck are you getting upset if Ryze give you promotion by saying: 'Look what so-and-so put on our site'?"

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Intellectual Property