9.1.5 Copyrights and Takedowns

One reason network providers are clamping down is pressure from the copyright cartel composed of the Hollywood movie studios and the big music recording companies. They call copyright infringement by a different name—“piracy”—and they’ve relentlessly protected their mass media content from anyone who might use it in any unauthorized way.

You have rights, as a consumer and a mediactive creator, as part of the broader “fair use” doctrine. For example, you can make personal backup copies of the music you buy. You also have the right to use other people’s work in limited ways to create new works. (The key word there is “limited”—don’t cut and paste large parts of other people’s work, period; and always, always credit the creator whose material you do quote or reuse.)

The cartel says it has nothing against fair use, but the policies it advocates would effectively do away with that right and many others. Its members want to tell you when you can copy anything for any reason. This is an attack on journalism, among other things (including scholarship).

The more we need permission to use other peoples’ work, the less building we’ll all do on what’s come before. Yet quoting is at the heart of cultural and scientific progress.

This doesn’t mean we should do away with copyright. I’m a big believer in its proper uses, which include balancing the incentive to create with the public’s right to use what others have created in new ways.

One of the heartening developments in recent years has been the growth of Creative Commons, an organization that helps people create and use material under a system that shares the creators’ rights with the general public in ways that promote further creative development. This book, like my last one, is published under a Creative Commons license permitting you to freely copy it for non-commercial purposes, and to build on what you find in new works provided that you give full attribution and release any new works based on this one under the same terms.

Copyright holders have a powerful weapon online: the “takedown notice” they can send to a site where, they allege, someone has posted works in an infringing way. If the site owners put up the material themselves, they are legally liable (although usually the copyright holder asks for no punishment beyond having the content removed). If a site user posted the material, the site host can avoid legal trouble by complying with the takedown notice. If whoever posted it challenges the notice, saying the material is not infringing, the content goes back up, and the copyright holder is then required to litigate if he or she wants to force the issue.

It sounds like a good system, but in practice, copyright holders have abused it. If the person being threatened with a lawsuit has the means to fight back, though, the plaintiffs can be held financially liable for “abusive” claims—as Diebold, a company that sold electronic voting machines, did when it “knowingly misrepresented that online commentators, including IndyMedia and two Swarthmore college students, had infringed the company’s copyrights.” In that case, Diebold was sued successfully by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and had to pay $125,000 in damages and fees.

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