Update: Following controversy related to its content ownership policy, JPay has removed language from its Terms of Service that would make all inmate communication the company's property. The original story is below.
Prison technology is a mess. Between predatory phone companies charging usurious rates for long-distance calls, outdated laws that punish contraband Facebook updates with years in solitary confinement, and video-visitation providers who force prisons to ban in-person visits with their loved ones, it's as if the entire purpose of putting technology in prisons is to make money for a handful of third-party providers, rather than extending basic digital rights and providing rehabilitation and communication options to the millions of people behind bars.
JPay, a company that Bloomberg Businessweek called "the Apple of the U.S. prison system," allows inmates in more than 30 states to send (monitored) email, receive money transfers (for a steep fee), and conduct (low-fi, glitchy) video chats with their loved ones on the outside. And now, the company is claiming that it owns everything sent and received through its systems. As spotted by the EFF's Dave Maass, buried in JPay's Terms of Service agreement is this line:
You … acknowledge that JPay owns all of the content, including any text, data, information, images, or other material, that you transmit through the Service.
Imagine if Google claimed that the contents of everything you sent through its servers belonged to them. (Not just if they reserved a license to use the content, as happens with Facebook photos and other uploaded data, but if the content actually became theirs.) If you e-mailed a recipe to your friend using Gmail, that recipe would become the intellectual property of Google. If you sent a love note or a racy photo to your partner, that, too, would become Google's property. Upload a video you shot to your Google Drive, and that video would belong to Google.
That would be a crazy set-up, obviously. But it's what exists in prisons that use JPay technology. And, since there's very little competition in the prison tech market, which is dominated by a few large corporations that use their muscle to create long-term exclusive contracts with prisons, it's not as if prisoners can switch to a rival system with saner terms. As Maass says, "JPay is leveraging its exclusive access to prisoner communications to claim rights over anything they or their friends and family transmit." A JPay spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This isn't just a hypothetical IP issue; it's also playing out in real, harmful ways for inmates. As Maass points out, one Indiana inmate, Leon Benson, was sent to solitary confinement and stripped of good-time days after a short video he'd sent to his supporters using JPay was posted on Facebook by his sister. Sending videos through JPay isn't a crime, of course — that's the whole point of having an approved technology provider — but prison officials argued that since JPay owned the video, Benson was violating its copyright by copying it to Facebook without permission.
The obvious solution to the many problems of the existing prison technology providers would be to allow new start-ups to come up with better ways to serve inmates and their families. But that isn't likely to happen. In fact, instead of being disrupted by newcomers, the market is consolidating. Earlier this year, JPay was purchased by Securus Technologies — another huge prison tech provider — giving it even more leverage with the prisons who use its systems.