Just a day after the Hugo Awards got stomped on by a copyright bot which saw the (permission-granted!) clips of Doctor Who shown therein as a copyright violation, Michelle Obama’s Democratic Convention speech was allegedly blocked for violating the copyrights of one of half a dozen news agencies. It starts to seem as if copyright enforcement bots are likely to be the true source of the Terminators, rather than Skynet—ruthlessly hunting down and mistakenly killing anything enjoyable on the Internet for mistaken copyright violations. Though there’s actually a bit less to the Youtube copyright issue than meets the eye. More on that below.
Perhaps more interesting is the way this seems naturally to lend itself to discussing how the Republicans and Democrats respectively stand on copyright issues. According to Ars Technica, each party claims it is the party of “Internet freedom”—but Republicans want enforcement of laws against pornography and obscenity, and a continued ban on on-line gambling, while Democrats insist they want “vigorous” enforcement of copyright laws.
Under the Obama Administration, the government has promoted “[number of] strikes” laws or programs in which ISPs would cut off their users after a certain number of copyright violations. It has seized hundreds of allegedly-infringing websites without due process. It has also crusaded with trade negotiations to try to get other countries to tighten up their copyright restrictions after the American model. The whole thing is more than a little ironic given how many copyright reform crusaders come from the left—indeed, Larry Lessig himself was an Obama supporter during his first campaign.
Are we ever going to have politicians who support consumers’ rights over big business interests? Seems like every time we get one, like Congressman Rick Boucher, he ends up getting kicked out of office. As long as it takes money to get elected to major offices, I imagine consumers will take second place to corporations with a lot of money to spend.
Oh, and as for that Obama video? Slate reports that Youtube claims it was due to a glitch causing their copyright-bot system to send the wrong message. The video wasn’t killed in mid-stream like the Hugos, and it wasn’t supposed to be taken down due to copyright issues, it was supposed to be down because it wasn’t intended to be immediately available for non-streaming viewing after the event was over in the first place. The message now just says that the video is private.
So while the original message seems to indicate copyright enforcement run amok, the result would have been the same even if YouTube hadn’t goofed up with the ‘bot message—the video wouldn’t have been available anyway. All the message does is mistakenly give copyright reform advocates more ammo. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.)
That being the case, it’s still hard to argue that copyright enforcement bots are not detrimental to the Internet. They bring “zero tolerance” to copyright enforcement: there’s no claim of “fair use” that will work against them, no use of the notice and counter-notice provision so carefully built into the DMCA, and as the Hugos found out, “but we have permission!” is not sufficient to get a stream resumed after it is taken down.
And why do we have these bots? To try to undercut the arguments of corporate interests that places where users can post their own content are wild, lawless piracy havens. Corporate interests think that the DMCA notice and counter-notice process is too slow. They want infringing content taken down yesterday and not to come back. So like a 98-pound weakling who preemptively hands over his lunch money so the playground bully won’t beat him up, these content sites voluntarily hand over the reins of copyright enforcement to interests who (think they) have a lot more at stake.
And you might think that something that applies to videos might not be a concern to e-books, but who is to say that an e-book site might not be as vulnerable to the allure of overzealous copyright enforcement by copyright owners? While not a copyright owner themselves, we already saw PayPal attempt to censor content it didn’t like off of Smashwords. Who’s to say copyright holders might not get the same sort of hold over e-book stores, and demand they pull works of scholarly criticism for daring to mention their own?
Our copyright system at the moment is really messed up. It’s seriously weighted toward the interests of the copyright holders, and copyright users have to scrabble for whatever crumbs they can get their hands on. Hopefully someday the pendulum will swing the other way.