The spin-to-truth ratio is rising

Mike Masnick over at TechDirt pointed me over to a “study” put out by Rick Falkvinge, a member of the Pirate Party, who claims that

for every job lost (or killed) in the copyright industry due to nonenforcement of copyright, 11.8 jobs are created in electronics wholesale, electronics manufacturing, IT, or telecom industries — or even the copyright-inhibited part of the creative industries.

Masnick has at least as many problems with Falkvinge’s methodology as I do, but the content industry plays this game too.  See this example of similarly muddled reasoning over at The Copyright Alliance Blog, which attempts to connect almost 14 million illegal downloads with the 2,000 production jobs in L.A.  Are readers really supposed to think that Hollywood blockbusters are imperiled?  If so, the Alliance Blog probably shouldn’t have picked as its example a movie that’s made over $800 million worldwide.  (At the box office alone.)

I think Masnick’s analysis is spot-on:

I don’t think anyone actually believes [Falkvinge’s] numbers are accurate. But it’s using the same basic methodology, assumptions and thought processes behind the studies in the other direction. You can also, obviously, claim that Falkvinge is biased. He is. But is he more biased than the entertainment industry legacy players who do the other studies? It seems clear that the industries are likely to be more biased, since they have billions of dollars bet on keeping the old structures in place. I think both studies are probably far from accurate in all sorts of ways, but if you’re going to cite the entertainment industry’s claims based on this kind of methodology, it seems you should also have to accept these claims. [emphasis added]

Numbers can be powerful weapons.  But it helps if they actually mean something and aren’t simply empty rhetorical flourishes.

Searching for a safe harbor

TorrentFreak reported a few days ago that Google has filed an amicus brief in the appeals case against torrent search engine isoHunt:

Google has been keeping an eye on the legal battle between the MPAA and isoHunt as last week, out of nowhere, the company unexpectedly got involved in the motion for summary judgment appeal. The search giant, which has always stayed far away from these types of cases, filed an amicus cuiae brief (third party testimony) at the Appeal Court.

“This cases raises issues about the interpretation and application of the safe-harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 512 et seq. (“DMCA”) and common-law rules governing claims for secondary copyright infringement. Google has a strong interest in both issues,” Google’s counsel writes.

Talk about understatement.  You can read Google’s 39-page brief for yourself over on Scribd — thanks to PaidContent for posting.

TechDirt posted additional commentary late yesterday suggesting that Google’s stance in the isoHunt appeal is mostly about its own ongoing litigation with Viacom:

Google argues that as long as YouTube took down any content it received a takedown notice on, it was in compliance and protected by safe harbors. Viacom leaned heavily on the IsoHunt ruling, to claim that the DMCA doesn’t just cover takedown notice responses, but also requires a response to “red flag” infringement.

However, Google knows that the IsoHunt ruling is basically the only legal precedent out there that reads the DMCA in this manner. So, from Google’s perspective, dumping that reasoning is key. So its amicus brief still argues that IsoHunt is guilty of contributory infringement, a la the Grokster standard, but not because of red flag infringement.

The last thing Google wants is to be liable for copyright infringement under the DMCA every time there is a “red flag” that infringement is taking place; that would be the end of Internet search engines as we know them.

Of course, Google’s business strategy isn’t merely to file amicus briefs and hope for the best; the search giant has also recently taken proactive steps to reduce its liability, including turning off autocomplete results for torrent-related searches.  I guess this is what the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) meant by “dialogue”, as detailed in her recent report:

the IPEC has facilitated and encouraged dialogue among the different private sector Internet intermediaries that contribute to the dynamic nature and functioning of the Internet, including payment processors, search engines and domain name registrars and registries. These entities are uniquely positioned to enhance efforts of rightholders and law enforcement to combat infringing activity and help reduce the distribution of infringing content in a manner consistent with our commitment to the principles of fair process, freedom of expression and other important public policy concerns. We believe that most companies share the view that providing services to infringing sites is inconsistent with good corporate business practice and we are beginning to see several companies take the lead in pursuing voluntary cooperative action.

I’m not sure how “voluntary” this really is — or whether “fair process” and “freedom of expression” accurately describes a “dialogue” written under a Damoclesian sword of statutory copyright damages and domain name seizures.  But I will agree that ruinous lawsuits and seizures are “inconsistent with good corporate business practice”.

Hat tip to Keith Lowery for sending me the link to the original TorrentFreak story.

Dressing up a terrible idea

Early last week, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story about the Mardis Gras Indians (Wikipedia backgrounder) who are attempting to copyright their costumes in order to collect money from photographers who take pictures of the festivities in New Orleans.  In the words of Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians:

For years we had the fear that we have been exploited. They [the photographers] had been taking advantage of us and coming in and snapping pictures. In selling the pictures, we see them everywhere – magazines, even in art galleries being sold and we are not getting anything from it.

Enter Ashlye Keaton, an adjunct law professor at Tulane Law School, who is representing Mr. Miller:

[The costumes] fall under copyright protection as works of art, as sculptures because the designs are sewn onto canvas and other materials and they are worn not as costumes, but they’re worn over clothing. So they’re not functional, which qualifies them for copyright protection as a sculptural work of art pursuant to the copyright act.

Mike Masnick over at TechDirt picked up on this story this morning.  Like me, he thinks this is a terrible idea:

[T]his whole thing goes against the very purpose of copyright law, which was to provide an incentive to create. But these guys have plenty of incentives to create that have nothing to do with copyright. Basically, they’re just upset that someone, somewhere might make money selling a calendar of Mardi Gras photos without paying them first….In the interview, the Mardi Gras Indian they interview makes no argument at all about incentives to create. Instead, he goes with the “I think that’s fair” argument for why photographers should pay him. Well, those photographers don’t think it’s fair — and copyright law is not about what someone thinks is fair. It’s about the incentive to create, and it makes no sense in this context.

Masnick makes a few other points:

  • That costumes are clothing a thus cannot be protected with copyrights.
  • That any photographs of the costumes would be a fair use because they would be “transformative” (citing a case about Grateful Dead concert posters).

I think one of the more pernicious effects of the expansion of intellectual property legal entitlements is that people now think they should be paid any time someone else makes money.  This is simply not the way the world works.  I won’t expand too much on Masnick’s points, but I would like to make a few point of my own about unsolicited benefits.

If I buy a house and put a beautiful garden in the front yard, I may well raise the property values of every house on my street.  Does the law allow me to collect any money from my neighbors?  No.

If I squeegee your windshield without being asked to while you are stuck in traffic, can I demand that you pay me?  No.

To be sure, Mardis Gras provides real benefits to lots of people, and Mr. Miller’s costume no doubt contributes to that general benefit.  As a general rule, however, the law doesn’t reward people just because they provide other people with benefits.  Why?  It’s generally unfair to foist such a responsibility on others (that’s why “squeegee men” are considered such a public nuisance.)  Moreover, it’s way too costly for courts to figure out who should pay who in what amounts after the fact.  Far better to let people strike their own bargains — to pay for communal landscaping through a homeowner’s association or to take their cars to a car wash.

If the Mardis Gras Indians want payment from their costumes, they have plenty of options.  They can:

  • collect donations.
  • look for a corporate sponsor, sell advertising, and/or give commercial endorsements.
  • sell their costumes to others.
  • perform in a private parade (with paid tickets).

What they can’t do, however, is simply take those costumes, walk down a public street in a free parade open to the public, and expect to be paid for it.  It just doesn’t work that way.

Copyright squared

There’s a new trend afoot to take the “notice” out of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA’s) “notice and takedown” procedures:

The company is claiming that the DMCA takedown notice itself is copyrighted and that passing it along will constitute infringement. Of course, this raises some questions.

It does indeed.  For those of you unfamiliar with the DMCA’s notice and takedown procedures, they are a safe harbor that Congress wrote into the DMCA to shield service providers from certain types of copyright infringement suits.  ChillingEffects has this helpful explanation in their FAQ’s:

In order to have an allegedly infringing web site removed from a service provider’s network, or to have access to an allegedly infringing website disabled, the copyright owner must provide notice to the service provider with the following information:

  • The name, address, and electronic signature of the complaining party [512(c)(3)(A)(i)]
  • The infringing materials and their Internet location [512(c)(3)(A)(ii-iii)], or if the service provider is an “information location tool” such as a search engine, the reference or link to the infringing materials [512(d)(3)].
  • Sufficient information to identify the copyrighted works [512(c)(3)(A)(iv)].
  • A statement by the owner that it has a good faith belief that there is no legal basis for the use of the materials complained of [512(c)(3)(A)(v)].
  • A statement of the accuracy of the notice and, under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on the behalf of the owner [512(c)(3)(A)(vi)].

Once notice is given to the service provider, or in circumstances where the service provider discovers the infringing material itself, it is required to expeditiously remove, or disable access to, the material. The safe harbor provisions do not require the service provider to notify the individual responsible for the allegedly infringing material before it has been removed, but they do require notification after the material is removed.

In his analysis, Mike Masnick notes a few of the problems with claiming copyright protection in DMCA takedown notices, particularly issues of authorship (“who owns the copyright”) and registration (“did whoever write this letter actually register it with the Copyright Office?”).  Of course, there are other problems to consider:

  1. First Amendment.  Do we really live in a world in which individuals can be subjected to legal process but cannot talk about what is happening to them?
  2. Fair use.  Among other things, isn’t the posting of DMCA notices transformative?  Is there any market effect that the law cares about?  Or is this like the proverbial “scathing theater review” that Justice Souter said “kills demand for the original” but “does not produce a harm cognizable under the Copyright Act”?  Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 US 569, 591-92 (1994).

It seems to me that if (1) you’re a copyright owner and (2) you think someone is infringing your rights and (3) you want it to stop but (4) you also want to keep it your little secret and not let anyone else in the world know other than the alleged infringer, then you should maybe reconsider (2), because the fact that you are insisting on (4) may indicate that (2) isn’t actually true.

Just a thought.