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How The Health Blogosphere Was Scammed

In a press release dated January 28, 2009, the HealthCentral Network announced the acquisition of a company called Wellsphere from its young CEO, Ron Gutman. Many of my fellow medical bloggers are familiar with Wellsphere as they’ve received countless email form letters from Wellsphere’s CMIO, Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge. The form letters are flattering, and suggest that the company would like to feature the blogger’s writing on their platform.

But what happens next is disturbing – to become a member of Wellsphere, bloggers provide access to their blog’s RSS feed. Hidden in the fine print is the blogger’s consent for Wellsphere to publish the entire feed (in other words, all of the blogger’s written work) and that once it’s published on their site, they own the intellectual property rights to it.

Astonishingly Wellsphere convinced some 1700 bloggers to join their network, and have now sold their site (which is comprised almost entirely of blog post content) to HealthCentral Network for an undisclosed amount, likely in the millions.

How much did the bloggers get for their writing? As far as I know, zero dollars.

In the reference section below you will see copies of emails sent by Dr. Rutledge and excerpts from the website’s Terms of Use document.

Is this the biggest scam ever pulled on health bloggers? You decide. If you have any additional information, feel free to post it in the comments section below.

Addendum: HealthCentral Network CEO tells Wall Street Journal “most bloggers are happy about Wellsphere.” If you disagree, send protest Tweet #wellsphere or leave comment below.

References:

Here is the introductory form email sent out by Dr. Rutledge:

Hi Dr. Jones,

I was on a search for the best medical blogs, when I found you at X.  I think your blog is great. I’d like to invite you to participate in the network of medical expert bloggers at Wellsphere, but perhaps I should explain a bit about myself and about Wellsphere as background.

My name is Dr. Geoff Rutledge, and, like you, I understand the power of the Internet to help people. I’m a physician (board certified in IM and EM) who previously practiced, taught, and carried out research at Stanford and Harvard medical schools, before I built and launched the first consumer ehealth service that became WebMD.com.

I now work with Wellsphere, which is a next-generation online platform that helps people achieve their health and healthy living goals – it is a major advance in the way people find and share information and services. Our platform connects millions of users with the valuable insights and knowledge from health leaders and medical experts like you — take a look at how the platform works at www.wellsphere.com. Stanford University was so impressed that they deployed our service for the entire campus (see stanford.wellsphere.com). We sell our service to employers and health plans – you won’t see today any ads or commercial services on our free public site.

I offer you the opportunity to be a featured medical expert blogger for a new  Wellsphere community. Members and visitors will see your postings highlighted, featured, and clearly marked as authored by a true medical expert.

When you join, we will feature you on our medical experts page (here is the preliminary design for this page: http://www.wellsphere.com/medical-experts.htm), and I will highlight your participation and your postings in my personal blog, which is featured prominently on the homepage of wellsphere.com (Dr.Geoff’s MedBlog, http://medblog.wellsphere.com/).

We will republish the postings you’ve already written for you (through your RSS feed), and feature them not only on the community pages of the site, but also within a new dynamic magazine-like Wellsphere360 section, where we give users a comprehensive view of medical expert information, plus news, videos, local resources, and member postings on topics you write about. You can see a sample of a Wellsphere360 special section at http://www.wellsphere.com/Wellsphere360/diabetes-type-2.htm

Also, I will select the best medical bloggers to feature on our homepage at www.wellsphere.com.

Your posts will link back to your blog, so you will benefit from Wellsphere’s high ranking and large readership interested in your topic, which will give you more traffic, additional relevant audience, and a higher ranking for your blog. Wellsphere has well over a million visitors per month, and is growing rapidly.

If you would like us to feature you, just send me an email to Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com.

Good health,

Geoff

Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD
Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

http://www.wellsphere.com


Here is a follow up email after I declined to join the network:

Hi Dr. Val,

We haven’t met, but I’ve been following your journey. We sent you an invitation to republish your blog from RevolutionHealth on Wellsphere, though I understood why that was somewhat problematic. I’m looking forward to seeing your new site at http://drvalblog.com/

Have you followed the advances that Wellsphere has made in creating a consumer-focused site that makes it easy to find both medical expert content and knowledge, and patient/community support?

If you would be interested in reaching the Wellsphere audience (now significantly exceeding that of RevolutionHealth, with over 2 million visitors per month), I would be pleased to extend the offer to republish your blog postings on Wellsphere.

We also could list you as a Notable Wellsite on topic pages of your interest (for which we ask only that you either list us on your blogroll, or take advantage of our free Health Knowledge Finder widget, or post an “I’m featured on Wellsphere” badge on your site.)

Cheers, Geoff

Here is a follow up email sent to a blogger who declined to join the network:

Hi XXX,
I just wanted to follow up on the invitation I sent you to be a featured blogger on Wellsphere.com. I was impressed with your blog at XXX, and invited you to be a featured blogger in the new General Medicine community.  We can also promote your blog in our new dynamic, magazine-like WellPages (with no extra work for you)! If you’re interested in being featured and promoting your blog to the larger Wellsphere audience, please drop me an email!
Good Health!
Geoff
-
Here is more information on how this works:

We republish your articles on our site, and include links back to your site. We also publish your profile with a link back to your site, and we feature you on special sections on topics that you write on, and in your topic-based community.

We will set up your profile if you don’t already have one, so you don’t have to do anything but give us permission to republish your content on our site. We don’t require a particular schedule for posting, though we have invited you to become a Wellsphere health blogger based in part on your history of posting on your blog.

Our growing network of bloggers (now over 1700) have told us they value what Wellsphere is trying to accomplish – helping people of all walks of life and across the spectrum of health to achieve healthier lives. They also appreciate the opportunity to reach the larger (and also rapidly growing!) Wellsphere audience, and to benefit from links in each posting that drive traffic back to their blogs.

We would be happy to include you in our network as we expand into health topics.
——
Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD
Chief Medical Information Officer
Wellsphere, Inc.

http://www.wellsphere.com

Here is an email from Wellsphere mistakenly sent to my webmaster (he’s not a blogger):

Hi john,

We are excited to recognize you in our new YES, WE CARE! Campaign that honors everyday heroes, like you, who put themselves on the front lines in the quest for a healthier, happier world by spending their time and putting their hearts and souls into helping others in need. We’re particularly excited to have this chance to honor you, for dedicating your time and writing to help people improve their health and well-being. We’ve nominated YOU as one of our Everyday Heroes!

As part of the YES, WE CARE! Campaign, we are creating a special video to highlight some of the amazing stories we’ve heard that demonstrate that caring for others is alive and well today all over the world. We would love to include YOUR story in the video! If you would like to send us a short video (cell phone or webcams are just fine!) about what moved you to start your blog, or to share a moving story of caring that you were involved in or heard about, we’d be happy to include it in the video. You can also interview someone you think is an Everyday Hero, or tell their story. Please keep the length of your video between 20 seconds and 2 minutes. The video can be very casual and definitely does NOT need to be professional or polished – just be yourself!

Please send us the video ASAP, and no later than Sunday, October 19th.

We can’t wait to see your videos and are looking forward to recognizing you and other Everyday Heroes you know for your extraordinary contribution to the world!

To submit your video, send us your video as an attachment via email to wecare@wellsphere.com. If you would like to send a video directly from your cell phone, just email me at Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com and I’ll send you the cell phone number you can send a video-text message to.

Good health!
Geoff

Geoffrey Rutledge MD, PhD
Chief Medical Information Officer
Wellsphere
Dr.Rutledge@wellsphere.com

Here is an email from Wellsphere about their plans for a health blog conference:

Hi ,

This week, I’m excited to share the warm words we’ve heard about all of you and the early feedback we’ve heard about the Yes, We Care Campaign, and announce the world’s first Health Blogger Conference!  We can’t wait to meet you in person…

Yes We Care!
The Yes We Care Campaign launched last week, and we’re thrilled to be able to honor you and your colleagues on the Map of Caring. The response has once again been quite dramatic. Many of you have already posted your Everyday Hero badges and the heartwarming Yes We Care! Video on your blogs. Here are a few of the comments we’ve heard about the campaign:

“I am thrilled to participate in your “YES, WE  CARE !” Campaign and am most humbled in your nomination.  What an amazing idea! Our blog continues with the hope of “paying it forward” and helping others, just as you are doing with Wellsphere. .. Thanks for doing such an amazing job!”  – http://www.ranaesheart.com/

“Thank you so much for recognizing my site and the effort that went into creating it!!! It’s amazing people like yourselves that keep me going and make a contribution to the greater good of all !! thank you again my friends !!!” -http://liftheavy.wordpress.com/

“Here is the video from Wellsphere! It is very cool it’s a 10 minute video with people from all over trying to help heal the world! Awesome video guys!”  http://thelifeofthomascslater.blogspot.com/
“I want to take this opportunity to thank Wellsphere for calling me a “Everyday Hero” for the lives I have touched. I want to say thank you for giving me that opportunity to do so.”  http://ucanhope2.blogspot.com

Many of you commented that the Yes We Care video let you see and connect with other members of the Health Bloggers Network for the first time, and asked if we would consider organizing an event for everyone to meet and connect with each other.  WHAT A GREAT IDEA!

I am very pleased to announce the world’s first Health Blogger Conference (“ HBC -09”)! This conference will be the largest gathering of health writers in history!  The Conference will be by invitation only, and as a member of the Health Blogger Network, you will automatically be guaranteed an invitation. This will be a great place for you to meet fellow health bloggers, share best practices, discuss sources of ideas, learn how to promote your blog, and meet some of the most prominent figures in the world of health. There will be a series of organized information sessions and seminars, as well as fun events and ample opportunities for you to meet and mingle in a relaxed atmosphere.   We will announce the location soon – somewhere you will enjoy a healthy, rejuvenating, experience.

If you’d like to get involved in the Conference, here are some of the opportunities available to you:
– become an organizer                                         
– become a volunteer
– give a talk or seminar
– organize a panel presentation
– suggest a topic for a talk or a panel
– suggest a speaker to invite to give a presentation

Here Are Excerpts From Wellsphere’s Terms of Service Document:

Ownership
…All Website Materials, including any intellectual property rights in such Website Materials, are the property of Wellsphere, its affiliates, licensors, or the designated owners, and are protected by applicable intellectual property laws. You should assume that everything you see on this Website is copyrighted unless otherwise noted, and may not be used without our written permission except as provided in these Terms…

Content You Submit to or Post on the Website
…You agree that any and all comments, information, photos, videos, feedback and ideas that you communicate to Wellsphere or submit or post to the Website or give Wellsphere permission to post to the Website (“User Materials”) will be deemed, at the time of communication to Wellsphere or submission or posting to the Website, to be the property of Wellsphere, and Wellsphere shall be entitled to full rights of ownership, including without limitation, the unrestricted right to use or disclose such User Materials in any form, medium or technology now known or later developed, and for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without compensation to you. In the event that you have any rights in the User Materials that cannot be assigned or waived you hereby grant to Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to (i) use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials, and (ii) reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display the User Materials in any medium or format, whether now known or later developed.

When you post your own copyrightable content on the Website or give Wellsphere permission to post your copyrightable content on the Website, you retain ownership of any copyright you claim to your submitted content. However, by posting your content or giving Wellsphere permission to post your content you automatically grant Wellsphere a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to (i) use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials, and (ii) reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display the User Materials in any medium or format, whether now known or later developed…


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72 Responses to “How The Health Blogosphere Was Scammed”

  1. Doc Shazam says:

    Thanks for the expose on this. Doesn’t US copyright law say that I own my own published work, as soon as it is published? How then could someone else take that away?

    In any case, with the magic of search engines and “link love” from one health blogger to the next, the need for aggregators like this is simply not there.

    If my blog, Mr. Hassle’s Long Underpants, Can’t stand on its own two flannel legs, then it wouldn’t benefit anyone else’s blog either.

    I’ve ignored all such requests out of simple common sense and pride in my original work over the past 6 years

  2. L says:

    i’m one who got scammed. i’ve taken my blog private so they can’t access my feed anymore and will be moving. asked them to cancel my membership.

    fool me once, shame on you. fool me twice, shame on me.

  3. Lee W. says:

    Wellsphere is a business. One whose lawyers did a good job of writing CYA language to avoid possible lawsuits for stealing other people’s content. How to fire back? Hit em’ where it hurts, in the Google SERP (search engine results pages).

    I suggest that all bloggers who feel screwed by Wellsphere petition Google to consider penalizing the business for its shady practices. Google can override the official “lawfulness” of pulling RSS feeds and claiming property rights on the content … and operate from an ethical point of view.

    Wellsphere’s hidden print is what the internet IS NOT about…and Google has the power to make the content that they’ve stolen worthless in terms of search engine ranking. That might be our best hope.

    REPORT WELLSPHERE HERE: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport

  4. Casey says:

    I was also approached by Wellsphere. I am a “mommy blogger” and not a health blogger. I do write about breastfeeding, but I found it odd that he would flatter me, my blog, and my writing to such a degree. I ignored his e-mails after the initial one because he had no answers when I asked how he saw my mommy-day-to-day-life blog fitting in with blogs on new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. I’m glad I did.

  5. Phil Butler says:

    Bravo on the Google SERP’s. Duplicate content hurts really bad and I would not be surprised to know Google has already penalized someone.

    As for this story, I would like to invite interested parties to help me do a piece on Sitepoiont about this. Use my email if so inclined.

    Always,
    Phil Butler

    P.S. Calling BS is fun

  6. Doug Bremner says:

    My flattering email made flattering references to my work history and other things which in retrospect were probably just cherry picked from my online cv. I googled the name of the Dr. (Like, do I know you?) and was a little insulted when I found some sites listing the form email, so I ignored that and the followup emails. Btw I used to write for huffpost and Arianna’s quote to the NYT about how they don’t pay the bloggers but they help them publicize their sites, books, etc simply isn’t true. I got sick of writing things that were tied to the news and having it not posted for three days, or not at all, or having things that went against their bias not posted, or having to compete with women writing about their open marriages, etc, etc.

  7. anonymous says:

    Don’t like the way this company treated you? Then maybe you shouldn’t have signed that contract granting them permission to sell your stuff.

  8. I couldn’t believe that so many bloggers fell for the trick of publishing Wellsphere’s promotional icon that touts them as a “Featured Blogger.” It’s clearly just another way to drive their own traffic.

  9. ex wellsphere employee says:

    wow. about 30 of us have been waiting for these clueless morons to be exposed. we tried to warn the public of them and their less than ethical behavior. i’m sad to say but had any of you done a tiny bit of diligence you would have been been presented with some major warning signs. a simple google search of ‘ron gutman’ is telling.

    here are a few gems(you must read the comments):

    http://ceppi.blogs.com/arbitrage/2007/07/reputation-ridd.html

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/01/28/wellsphere-launches-wellness-2/

    http://venturebeat.com/2007/01/28/wellsphere-for-those-striving-to-be-fit-and-healthy/

  10. SterileEye says:

    Thank God I declined their offer some months ago!

  11. SterileEye says:

    Thank God I declined their offer some months ago!

  12. Sophie says:

    I was going to say how glad I am that I went with my gut instinct and declined the many email invitations from Geoffrey Rutledge but thinking back, it wasn't instinct at all. I did some research and all the signs were there from the inside scoop blog posts from ex-employees to the actual Terms of Service.

    But they did make it all sound very tempting and flattering so I can see why people signed up. I guess it's true what they say, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is

  13. Sophie says:

    I was going to say how glad I am that I went with my gut instinct and declined the many email invitations from Geoffrey Rutledge but thinking back, it wasn't instinct at all. I did some research and all the signs were there from the inside scoop blog posts from ex-employees to the actual Terms of Service.

    But they did make it all sound very tempting and flattering so I can see why people signed up. I guess it's true what they say, if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is

  14. michael says:

    TBTAM, you're right on the money on the biz model. This is practically many of the new web2.0 biz model these days, where UGC (user generated content) is what brings in the advertising money for big corporation.

  15. michael says:

    TBTAM, you're right on the money on the biz model. This is practically many of the new web2.0 biz model these days, where UGC (user generated content) is what brings in the advertising money for big corporation.

  16. Jeanne says:

    Dr. Val,

    Wellsphere is the devil to me.

    I never consented to give them my RSS feed.

    I was registered very briefly on their site before Dr. Geoff sent me the infamous flattery letter.

    When I got the letter, I was very uneasy. I researched the company and found uncool stuff.

    I actually pulled up one Wellsphere site that had health info on one part of the page and porn links on another part. Seriously.

    Anyway, I emailed Dr. Geoff asking that my profile be removed from the WS site. He wrote back this email here he played dumb that I had just asked him that. He did one of his usual speeches and at the very end of his email was a comment that I could always request to have WS remove my profile if I wish.

    Umm, hello! I just made that very request to you Dr. Geoff!

    I was really ticked now. I tried deleting my own profile from the Wellsphere site but the fields kept re-populating when I saved changes. So I faked it out. I deleted everything I could and then filled in 55555 for my zip code and zzz@zzz.net for the email address. Finally, all of my contact info was invisible on the WS site.

    AFTER I had faked out the site (leaving a nonsensical, horrible-looking profile behind), THEN Wellsphere deleted my profile.

    Like I said, I never gave my RSS feed or agreed to be a “featured writer”. However, I did not want my blog address or face on that horrid site once I researched them and got the creeps.

    It saddens me that people/companies take advantage of others… especially people who are sick and vulnerable!

    Wellsphere is the devil to me.

    Thank you very much for writing this article!!!!

    Jeanne

  17. Jeanne says:

    Dr. Val,

    Wellsphere is the devil to me.

    I never consented to give them my RSS feed.

    I was registered very briefly on their site before Dr. Geoff sent me the infamous flattery letter.

    When I got the letter, I was very uneasy. I researched the company and found uncool stuff.

    I actually pulled up one Wellsphere site that had health info on one part of the page and porn links on another part. Seriously.

    Anyway, I emailed Dr. Geoff asking that my profile be removed from the WS site. He wrote back this email here he played dumb that I had just asked him that. He did one of his usual speeches and at the very end of his email was a comment that I could always request to have WS remove my profile if I wish.

    Umm, hello! I just made that very request to you Dr. Geoff!

    I was really ticked now. I tried deleting my own profile from the Wellsphere site but the fields kept re-populating when I saved changes. So I faked it out. I deleted everything I could and then filled in 55555 for my zip code and zzz@zzz.net for the email address. Finally, all of my contact info was invisible on the WS site.

    AFTER I had faked out the site (leaving a nonsensical, horrible-looking profile behind), THEN Wellsphere deleted my profile.

    Like I said, I never gave my RSS feed or agreed to be a “featured writer”. However, I did not want my blog address or face on that horrid site once I researched them and got the creeps.

    It saddens me that people/companies take advantage of others… especially people who are sick and vulnerable!

    Wellsphere is the devil to me.

    Thank you very much for writing this article!!!!

    Jeanne

  18. hjohns says:

    he is on facebook, so is rutman

  19. hjohns says:

    he is on facebook, so is rutman

  20. Singletude says:

    As someone whose blog was ripped without my permission, I'm trying to spread the word about Wellsphere's Health Blogger Network Participation Agreement, which you can find on their site. Part of it reads as follows:

    “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 authority to use it.

  21. Singletude says:

    As someone whose blog was ripped without my permission, I'm trying to spread the word about Wellsphere's Health Blogger Network Participation Agreement, which you can find on their site. Part of it reads as follows:

    “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 authority to use it.

  22. 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.

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