The Freakonomics of fair use

The NYTimes’ Freakonomics blog uses the subject of poetry criticism to tackle fair use:

In a recent article, the poetry critic of the New York Times complained that to do poetry criticism right, it’s often necessary to quote extensively from a poem. Indeed, in the case of a short poem, it might be helpful to readers to copy the whole thing. But, the critic said, this can’t be done because it might run afoul of copyright law.

It is true that copyright law prohibits the unauthorized copying of any substantial part of someone’s poem, song, or other work.…Is this a good policy?  From an economic perspective, no.

The reason this is bad policy, however widely discussed, bears repeating:

Use of a small bit of someone else’s creative work to build a new creative work rarely harms the economic interests of the first copyright owner, because most “derivative” works do not directly compete with the original.

Every creator builds on what came before, and such building usually doesn’t “compete” with that earlier work in any economic sense.  Creating legal fear and uncertainty about building on the past, however, is quite effective in limiting the creation of new works in the present.

Righthaven “nearing bankruptcy”

I was suspicious several days ago when I heard that Righthaven might be going under, but apparently it’s true:

The Las Vegas copyright-trolling firm Righthaven told a Nevada federal judge Friday it might file for bankruptcy protection, or cease operations altogether.

To prevent that, Righthaven is asking U.S. District Judge Philip Pro to stay his decision requiring Righthaven pay $34,000 in legal fees to an online commenter it wrongly sued for infringement.

Wired has posted Righthaven’s Motion to Stay here (pdf).  They are exceptionally candid about the economics of copyright troll litigation:

In Colorado, 35 Righthaven copyright infringement cases have been stayed since May 19, 2011 pending a ruling on whether the company has standing to maintain these actions. Likewise, ten infringement actions, most of which involve an amended version of the SAA that addresses the concerns expressed by this Court in its subject matter decision, have been stayed in this District until a standing determination is made. Thus, Righthaven has been precluded from actively litigating and resolving the stayed cases. Moreover, Righthaven has delayed filing new copyright enforcement actions until a standing determination is made based upon the terms of the currently operative version of the SAA. Throughout this period, and despite a lack of incoming revenue given that numerous pending action are stayed, Righthaven has continued to incur operating expenses.

Clearly, Righthaven is a cash-poor outlet these days.  And here’s where things get really interesting:  based on its motion, Righthaven seems deathly afraid that they might have to sell some of their assets to satisfy a $34,000 judgment.  As they explain to the court:

Righthaven also has significant proprietary rights in its copyright infringement search engine software (the “Software”), which plays an integral role in the company’s operations. If a stay is not granted pending appeal, this valuable Software may be seized and liquidated in an attempt to satisfy the Judgment. Liquidation may result in the Software being sold to a competing organization or entity.

Talk about woeful undercapitalization.  A $34,000 judgment is going to force them into selling off their core business assets?  Really?

Righthaven always presented defendants in its copyright litigation with an unfair dilemma:

(1) pay out a few thousand in “go away” money now, or
(2) mount an actual legal defense (at an initial, minimum cost of a few thousand, with no guarantees that things would work out well).

It seems that Righthaven now faces a dilemma of its own:

(1) raise enough capital to pay off this $34,000 pending appeal, or
(2) go bankrupt.

The difference, of course, is that the dilemma Righthaven faces is fair.  They put defendants to the expense of hiring lawyers.  Some of those defendants won.  The law says that those winning defendants should have their legal expenses paid by Righthaven.  Sounds about right to me.  If Righthaven can’t afford to pay without selling assets, perhaps they never should have been filing lawsuits in the first place.

Righthaven losing that rocky mountain high

I noted yesterday that copyright troll Righthaven hasn’t filed any new lawsuits in the past two months, but I was suspicious that it was all over.  After reading Wired’s coverage today, however, I think Righthaven’s end is near:

The new chief executive of MediaNews Group, publisher of the Denver Post and 50 other newspapers, said it was “a dumb idea” for the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain to sign up with copyright troll Righthaven.…

“The issues about copyright are real,” [John] Paton told Wired.com in a telephone interview. “But the idea that you would hire someone on an — essentially — success fee to run around and sue people at will who may or may not have infringed as a way of protecting yourself … does not reflect how news is created and disseminated in the modern world.”

I stand corrected.  Barring a court-ordered miracle, it seems only a matter of time before Righthaven closes up shop.

Mr. Google, take down this content

Google’s default response to possible copyright infringement on YouTube is surprisingly mechanical and far from perfect.  Consider TMZ’s recent report on the hapless Justin Bieber and his ubiquitous YouTube music videos:

Justin Bieber has been victimized by a brand new cyber-enemy … an enemy who found a way to get every single one of JB’s official music videos REMOVED from YouTube….YouTube has a yank first, ask questions later policy when a copyright claim is made — so they simply pulled the videos off the site … until the dispute is resolved.

Of course, there are myriad problems with such a system, as Ernesto over TorrentFreak elaborates:

YouTube describes its Content-ID anti-piracy filter as a state-of-the-art technology, but those who look closely can see that in some cases it creates a huge mess. The system invites swindlers to claim copyright on other people’s videos and make money off them through ads. It automatically assigns thousands of videos to people who don’t hold the copyrights, and its take-down process appears to be hugely biased towards copyright holders.…

Content-ID allows rightsholders to upload the videos and music they own to a central ‘fingerprint’ database. YouTube will then scan their site for full or partial matches, and if there is a hit the copyright holder can automatically take it down, or decide to put their ads on it.

Although the above sounds like a fair and honest solution, not everything Content-ID does goes to plan.…One of the problems appears to be that people with bad intentions can claim copyright on videos they have nothing to do with, and even run ads on them. In the YouTube support forums there are hundreds of posts about this phenomenon…[although] most of the “misattribution” problems seem to be the result of screwups and technical limitations.

As Ernesto notes in passing, there is supposed to be an opportunity to counter a takedown request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Unfortunately, Google’s Content-ID system doesn’t work this way, as Patrick McKay of FairUseYouTube.org elaborates:

Instead of requiring copyright owners to file a formal DMCA notice in response to a Content ID dispute, thus allowing users to invoke the DMCA counter-notice process, YouTube allows copyright owners to somehow “confirm” their copyright claim through the Convent ID system and re-impose whatever blocks were originally in place through Content ID. In this case, a message will appear on the user’s “View Copyright Info” page for that video saying, “All content owners have reviewed your video and confirmed their claims to some or all of its content.” After this, as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no way for the user to file a dispute and get their video restored.

Certainly, Google is under no legal obligation to provide video distribution services to anyone who asks for them no matter how contentious the content’s ownership.  At the end of the day, Google is a business, and dealing with the minutia of these copyright ownership disputes is expensive.  It’s obvious why Google wants to bow out of the fight as early (and cheaply) as possible.

Nonetheless, it is extremely troubling that Google is silencing some users’ speech without allowing them to defend (at their own risk and expense) legal rights provided under the DMCA.

YouTube’s copyright school

In an apparent bid to prevent one-time copyright infringers from becoming two-timers (or more), YouTube has created a 4 minute and 39 second copyright school on its website, as explained on the official YouTube blog:

Because copyright law can be complicated, education is critical to ensure that our users understand the rules and continue to play by them. That’s why today we’re releasing a new tutorial on copyright and a redesigned copyright help center. We’re also making two changes to our copyright process to be sure that our users understand the rules, and that users who abide by those rules can remain active on the site.

If we receive a copyright notification for one of your videos, you’ll now be required to attend “YouTube Copyright School,” which involves watching a copyright tutorial and passing a quiz to show that you’ve paid attention and understood the content before uploading more content to YouTube.

Ray Dowd over at the Copyright Litigation Blog is not a fan, noting that Google:

  • fails to mention the existence of the public domain;
  • states that “[i]f you are uncertain as to whether a specific use qualifies as a fair use, you should consult a qualified copyright attorney”; and
  • fails to mention the Constitutional purpose of copyright law.

I have to agree with Ray.  The video’s section on fair use (direct link) is particularly egregious.  Unlike the rest of the video, this section adopts the sped-up vocal “style” often adopted at the end of radio commercials to breeze through legal disclaimers (e.g., “Sweepstakes only open to U.S. residents 18 or older…”)  How is this even attempting to educate and inform?

Far from providing a balanced view of copyright law, YouTube’s clear, bottom-line message is this:  Don’t remix or even approach the fair use line.  This is certainly one vision of copyright law, but there are others.  I am reminded of Christina Mulligan’s excellent blog post last June that looked at contemporary copyright law through the lens of Fox’s hit show Glee:

The absence of any mention of copyright law in Glee illustrates a painful tension in American culture. While copyright holders assert that copyright violators are “stealing” their “property,” people everywhere are remixing and recreating artistic works for the very same reasons the Glee kids do — to learn about themselves, to become better musicians, to build relationships with friends, and to pay homage to the artists who came before them. Glee’s protagonists — and the writers who created them — see so little wrong with this behavior that the word ‘copyright’ is never even uttered.

Lawrence Lessig makes the related point that such recreations benefit society, pointing to John Phillip Sousa’s early-twentieth-century fear that recorded music would eventually displace amateur performance entirely.

Google is taking a lot of heat from copyright owners these days, and it’s hard to blame them from trying to stave off any accusations of infringement that might eventually stick to Google itself.  Nevertheless, I don’t think their frenetic, one-sided “educational” video is the best solution.

Righthaven drops another case

Righthaven comes up a lot here at Legally Sociable, and I’ve mentioned their suit against Brian Hill, a 20-year-old blogger with autism and severe diabetes, before.  In another victory for defendants in Righthaven lawsuits, Ars Technica reports that Righthaven is dropping its suit against Brian, after the judge noted that enabling a cheap, easy settlement “is not my primary concern”:

Though the case was moving forward, Righthaven made clear it wasn’t actually interested in litigating the suit; it wanted to settle. “Righthaven is no longer willing to engage in settlement discussions over trivial issues while the Defendant and his counsel seek to extend this action for publicity purposes,” said the company. With settlement not a possibility, the company now just wants the suit to go away. [emphasis added]

Indeed, Righthaven’s lawsuits are starting to drop like flies.  It was just two weeks ago that Righthaven dismissed a suit against the freelance author of another Ars Technica article that covered Righthaven’s litigation antics.  In dropping the suit against Ars’ reporter, Righthaven claimed it was all just a mistake:

“We took immediate corrective action” after learning that Righthaven had just sued a reporter, said [Righthaven lawyer Shawn] Mangano. He added that, since reporters make use of copyright and tend to know a good deal about fair use, “It’s somewhat counterintuitive to sue a reporter for copyright infringement!”

While I certainly applaud Righthaven’s decision to drop these two particularly suits, I have to wonder about the outcomes in the other 260+ lawsuits they have filed over the past year.

Dictionary.com defines “bully” as “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”  This definition appears to describe Righthaven perfectly; indeed, it is only when a defendant proves not to be “smaller or weaker” that they tuck tail and run.  Clearly, Righthaven didn’t think it was worth fighting a reporter backed by one of the largest magazine publishers in the U.S. or a highly sympathetic blogger with a clearly competent lawyer (PDF).  However laudatory in result, its dismissals in these cases seem to confirm that Righthaven is not truly defending a principled (if overzealous) view of copyright law.  Instead, Righthaven appears to be a garden-variety bully out to shake down the small and weak for four-digit settlements.

Copyright reform, anyone?

Update 4/12/2011:  Joe Mullin at paidContent has additional information about the Hill dismissal:

In a 3-page motion, Righthaven tries to let Hill off the hook but maintains a complainy sort of tone….Judge Kane responded to that by taking another extraordinary action—he actually ordered Righthaven’s “warning” to be stricken from the record entirely, along with all the company’s complaints about Hill’s bad behavior. That part of the filing was “immaterial and impertinent,” Kane wrote. That’s a strong suggestion that Kane has become quite annoyed by Righthaven’s tone and actions in this case.

Wow.  I think I’d be quite worried about sanctions if I were representing Righthaven in this case.

Further reading (hat tip to paidContent):

  • Order Denying Righthaven Extension, April 7 [Scribd]
  • Righthaven Notice of Dismissal, April 10 [Scribd]
  • Order To Strike, April 11 [Scribd]

Documenting fair use

Documentary.org has a wonderful write-up by Tamsin Rawady and Alex Buono about fair use in the documentary film setting.  As the writers/producers of Bigger Stronger Faster, a documentary about pop cultural influences driving performance-enhancing drug use, they grappled with how to tell their story legally:

The first problem we encountered is that it seemed like Fair Use was sort of an urban legend: Does it really exist? Can you really use archival clips without licensing them? And does anyone understand how this all works?

Fortunately, Rawady and Buono retained excellent legal counsel who were able to walk them through the issues and get them a highly defensible final cut, though even that wasn’t easy:

After the film has been released, expect to get calls from copyright holders upset about your use of their footage. Most copyright holders have never heard of Fair Use, and you should allow some money in your budget to have your attorney call and talk through the evidence you have. If you have been responsible in your Fair Use decisions, most complaints will only require one phone call from your attorney to make them go away. We encountered a handful of copyright holders from some very large corporations who were not pleased that their clips had been used in our film, but we were well prepared by our attorneys and had no problem avoiding any legal claims. [emphasis added]

I’m certainly happy that it worked out better for Bigger Faster Stronger than it did for Slaying the Dragon:  Reloaded.  Rawady and Buono’s story reminds us that, in law as in life, (1) an ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure and (2) the best (fair use) defense is a good (proactive) offense.

Further resources and reading: