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The Many Faces Of Snake Oil

It is my unhappy duty to reveal yet another depressing example of dishonest gain in medicine. This time, however, patients were not the only victims. Many healthcare professionals, including physicians, were prey to what has been called “an intellectual property ponzi scheme.”

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 its 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 health 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. The Wall Street Journal health blog reports:

As for the thousands of bloggers HealthCentral picks up with the merger, there is already grumbling in the blogosphere that Wellsphere built its business on health bloggers who don’t benefit from the deal. “But most are happy and we hope with all our resources and quality-content background we will really strengthen these engagements,” Schroeder told us.

Interesting statement from Schroeder – “most are happy.” He clearly hasn’t read the comments section of my blog. If there ever were a time for the medical/science/health blogosphere to rise up “Motrin moms-style,” it would be now. You may Tweet in protest by entering your comment with “#wellsphere” on Twitter. Or kick it old-school here in our comment section.

If you have any additional information, feel free to post it in the comments section 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 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…

Posted in: General, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (25) ↓

25 thoughts on “The Many Faces Of Snake Oil

  1. tarran says:

    No threadjack intended: people might be interested in a book that is written in opposition to the idea of intellectual property:
    Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine.

    Of course, this has little to do with copyrights and much to do with “fine-print” contractual scams, which have been around, I expect, since the time of the Sumerians. Read contracts before you agree to them! Don’t agree to anything you don’t understand!

  2. botogol says:

    - i don’t think this is too much of a scam.
    - the license is non-exclusive so you still own the copyright and can sell your content yoursefl for whatever it’s worth.
    - the truth is that one blog-post alone isn’t worth anything, it’s the aggregation which (if well-done) can create the value, and that’s what wellsphere does.

    in return bloggers get more exposure (possibly)

  3. Kultakutri says:

    Should someone have the guts to come to me with such a proposal, I’d tell them to roll it and stick it up… well, wherever.
    But, I have My Dad’s Business and Law School (TM) and I read the fine print first. I know that the contracts contain lots of standardized legalese – I’ve signed some myself – but should my publisher want me to agree with this… I wouldn’t probably only tell them to roll it etc.
    I understand that people get what they sign but even perfectly legal things can be pretty immoral, this being one of them. There might not be any hidden agenda behind this but for the Wellsphere owners getting paid by the advertisers for more clicks. In that case, why would they want the contributors to give up any property rights? I smell a fish.

  4. weing says:

    Why are you surprised? You are a doctor. You know very well that we are not supposed to make money with our work. Everyone else can make money from our work but not us. Look at the insurance companies, the pharmacy benefits managers, pharma, labs, durable medical equipment suppliers. Is this situation any different?

  5. Fifi says:

    This is a very common ploy and is primarily a means to get free content (most professions have a version of this kind of fishing for free content, though not surprisingly writers or wannabe writers are heavily targeted to right on a wide variety of topics). Of course, what’s particularly insidious about a private company doing this with doctors is the attempt to get doctors implicated in a commercial business and to add legitimacy to the corporation/company though being associated. Not to mention a means to gather all the independent voices in one place and to have them emotionally invested in your company via your blog. I’m sure part of the value when this company was sold was the “community of bloggers” and “audience”.

  6. Karl Withakay says:

    botogolon,

    You can still sell your material yourself, but Wellsphere can underbid you anytime you try to sell your material to anyone, and Wellshpere can publish a book of 5 years of your medical blog posts without giving you a penny. Furthermore, you have no control of what quotes form your content that Wellsphere can cherry pick, amalgamate with other people’s content, and republish in any form they choose.

    One blog post isn’t worth much, but one blog site can be extremely valuable. The reality is that for any of the semi-established blogs like Respectful Insolence or Neurologica, the value exchange in the relationship is slanted in favor of Wellsphere.

    Consider these blogs already have an established presence on the web, and can exist just fine without Wellsphere, but Wellsphere has nothing if they don’t get content provided to them.

    How much traffic is Wellsphere going to bring into any of those blogs? The more content Wellsphere acquires, the less value they end up providing to any individual content provider as they divide their “promotion efforts” across all the content providers. (This is how it becomes a Ponzi/pyramid scheme).

    The lesser blogs probably get no more value than the established ones.

    They can’t really “feature” 1000 or more different content providers, and the benefit of linking to the content provider’s site doesn’t really provide any value if they reproduce all the content on Wellsphere. (If everything on getbetterhealth.com and neurologica.com were cross posted to sciencbasedmedicine.com, I wouldn’t bother visiting those sites as I could get everything from one place.

    What they end up providing is a way for them to acquire IP rights to valuable, needed content in exchange for magic jelly beans.

  7. If I had a nickel for every time that a content producer tried to sell me on the idea that my giving away my hard-drawn artwork for free was a great idea for me because it would give me more exposure, etc., etc., bsbs…

    It’s no different from the scam they’re pulling here on doctors. “Oh, your writing will be seen by a wider audience, blah blah, the exposure will be so good for your profile!” Yeah, yeah. I have charities to which I give my time and work away for free, and you know what the difference is? They are honest and up-front about it being charity, and they aren’t using my work to make money for their shareholders instead of their cause.

  8. Val Jones says:

    Of note, this post is featured on the home page of Nature.com Blogs. High five to cool commenters Karl, Fifi, and Perky. :)

    http://blogs.nature.com/stories/599

  9. nitpicking says:

    weing, speaking as a non-doc: all of us who make less money than you do would like to point out that even in this time when you feel financially squeezed, medical doctors still make a lot of money by the standard of most professions. Say, teachers, writers, and engineers to name 3.

  10. David Gorski says:

    Actually, it depends on the specialty. While it’s true that some surgeons and specialists can rake in well over $300,000 a year (although, given the declining reimbursement for common procedures, making that much is very, very difficult for a general surgeon–or a breast surgeon for that matter, given that breast procedures are particularly poorly reimbursed), the primary care specialties are arguably underpaid. I’ve met some pediatricians and primary care docs whose salaries were well under $100,000, and in New Jersey it was not uncommon to find teachers with a lot of experience making around $80,000. I realize NJ is probably an outlier, but the difference in salaries between some primary care docs and the professions you mention is probably not as great as you believe, and those professions don’t have to do anywhere the number of years of training that doctors do (four years of college + four years of medical school + at least three years of residency, often more = at a minimum 11 years of post-high school training).

  11. Karl Withakay says:

    Consider also that many of those PCP’s who make well under $100K (especially when you consider network engineers; try finding a really good Cisco engineer for $50K)

  12. Karl Withakay says:

    (Had to repost as the system doesn’t like the less than & greater than symbols)

    Consider also that many of those PCP’s who make well under under $100K and are also under 40years old still have massive student loans outstanding.

    Also consider there a lot of very well paid engineers out there making under $100K (especially when you consider network engineers; try finding a really good Cisco engineer for $50K)

  13. Fifi says:

    Dr Gorski,
    I think you may be unaware of what most teachers make and that “under $100 000″ is sometimes 4 or 5 times what some people make. Sorry but comparing the top salary you’ve seen for an experienced teacher (who is probably a specialist and also undergone extensive extra training) with the bottom salary of a doctor really only proves that doctors almost always make a lot more than people in professions like teaching and writing. People go into medicine to make money for a reason (and people go into specialities rather than remaining GPS for the money sometimes). It’s a lucrative profession for the most part, particularly in the US where it’s a private enterprise.

    Being a doctor is a lucrative profession but it’s not, generally, going to make someone really rich (it moves people into the upper middle class bracket, rich to most people but not actually rich when compared to people who are rich). Doctors who get rich generally do so because they invest or engage in other businesses, write diet books and become pop MDs (usually mixing in some CAM for marketing purposes), and are in the business of medicine (rather than just practicing medicine).

    Everyone who works or pays their own way through university has student loans to pay back. Doctors, however, have an advantage when they graduate because they step into decent salaries and are seen as solid credit risks. And, of course, some med students train outside of the country where it’s cheaper (Canada, for instance).

    As for engineers, sure IT professionals used to be paid a lot. Right now it’s layoffs left and right and plummeting salaries. As a lawyer friend once said to me – the three safest professions are doctor, lawyer and accountant because no matter the economy you’ll always be needed.

  14. David Gorski says:

    I think you may be unaware of what most teachers make and that “under $100 000″ is sometimes 4 or 5 times what some people make

    In general, people with 11+ years of post-high school education make more than $20,000 a year. I’m sure there are exceptions (the unemployed, for instance), but as a rule of thumb that’s true.

  15. David Gorski says:

    (Had to repost as the system doesn’t like the less than & greater than symbols)

    That’s because they are used to mark HTML tags and appear before and after them, in HTML. WordPress interprets them as HTML and gets confused.

  16. Fifi says:

    Dr Gorski – True but many people only make $20-30, 000 a year (and I don’t know what alternate universe you live in where writers routinely make as much as doctors!). Quibbling over such a minor point as my lazy “4 or 5 times” doesn’t really change the fact that medicine is a well paid profession. I’m not making any kind of moral or social judgment about that. You seem to be being a bit of an apologist.

  17. weing says:

    nitipicking,

    I never said I was feeling financially squeezed. I also never realized I made more money than J K Rowling. Bank CEOs are really going to be squeezed. Those that run their companies so poorly that they require government bailout (my tax dollars) will be limited to an impoverishing $400,000 a year.

    Physicians will never be rich because they are like prostitutes. They have to be there to get paid. Their income range is not that great. A writer can write a book and go away and still collect money from continued sales of her/his book. On the other hand, only a handful of writers make the big bucks and the range between the highest and lowest income is astronomical. Most are doing something else while their books are unsold and unread.

  18. David Gorski says:

    Quibbling over such a minor point as my lazy “4 or 5 times” doesn’t really change the fact that medicine is a well paid profession.

    It’s not a minor point, and I wasn’t “quibbling.” Education and training matter, and you made it sound as though there were a bunch of people with equivalent training making only $20,000 a year out there. No one’s arguing that medicine isn’t a well-paid profession, for the most part. However, most doctors are not rich and never will be rich.

  19. Fifi says:

    Dr Gorski – I quite clearly said that doctors are more likely to be upper middle class than actually wealthy in real wealth terms. This is still much better off than average. Certainly there are doctors who choose lower paying jobs for altruistic reasons but it’s simply ridiculous to compare what doctors make with what teachers and writers make (even in Canada where doctors make substantially less than in the US). Doctors who engage in the business side of medicine can become very wealthy.

  20. Fifi says:

    weing – What you may not realize is that lots of authors sell books and don’t make a lot of money. It’s only blockbusters and best-sellers….often the literary equivalent of quackery if we consider something like The Celestine Prophecies or The Davinci Code…that make people rich (or even well off). People who work within the publishing industry, often make quite good money (just as doctors involved in the business side of medicine can become extremely wealthy).

    Your inference that authors don’t make money because they’re no good, is like me saying that quacks make more money than doctors so that means they’re actually providing quality medical care. All you’re doing is highlighting the arrogance of doctors who feel entitled and are resentful that their McMansion isn’t as big as a CEOs (and that their cottage is not the biggest on the lake).

    Sure GPs make less than specialists (and academics at elite universities) – and medical researchers often make crap money but that’s a different issue – but American specialists complaining about not making enough money seems like sheer greed to me (and many, many other people I’d assume). Particularly since it’s usually accompanied by a finger pointing at someone else who makes more money while totally ignoring how much more than most people make.

  21. weing says:

    Fifi,

    You are reading too much into what I said. In no way did I imply that authors do not make money because they are no good. The two have nothing to do with each other.

    I clearly said that doctors will not be rich because they are like prostitutes. They have to be physically present to make the money. The pimps make the big bucks from the work of the prostitutes. The insurers, etc are our pimps and they get rich off of our work. As Dr Jones posted in this blog the pimp made the big bucks off the work of the bloggers.

  22. Fifi says:

    weing – Fair enough, thanks for explaining further. One of the pitfalls of medicine run as a business that emphasizes profits is that doctors just become “content providers” (and no doubt your bosses will be just as happy to turn over your jobs creating content to wannabe doctors who will do it for free or cheaper). Though, really, it’s not like you couldn’t just pull up your bootstraps and run your own business if you don’t want a pimp – that’s the free market way of doing business, no?

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