Byte Rights: Ruining the Party


I’m going to say something I don’t get to say enough: Copyright can be great. It can provide a living wage, spread knowledge, and even sometimes enhance art. It gives us Open Source, viral art, and countless creative works that would have died in the desk job. Many of the worst uses of copyright are actually misuses, deceptions, and hustles. They often trade on how confusing copyright is, giving too much power to legally worded nonsense meant to squeeze money or restrict use that’s all bark and no legal standing.

There are so many bogus claims out there, high and low. Even the notice on the White House’s Flickr stream says pictures are posted “only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s).... The photograph may not be manipulated in any way....” It’s nice they tell you why they posted it, but they’re not telling you what you’re allowed to do with it. The license link on the same page explains that all intellectual work of the U.S. government is “not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no U.S. copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work.” You’re allowed to put horns on Obama’s picture and march down the street with your derivative work claiming he turns into a lizard at night and eats janitorial staff. You’d only be violating the laws of common sense.

The most pernicious bogus claims aren’t ever seen by the public; they’re misused to damage individuals and businesses by knocking them offline. According to a report that Google provided to the New Zealand government, more than half the DMCA take-down notices that the search giant receives are from businesses targeting their competition, and then another 37 percent of those aren’t valid copyright claims at all, much less ones that check out legally. These days, the DMCA take-down is largely a dirty-tricks tool. It’s too bad that copyright, which can do so much good, is becoming such a hustler’s tool that we might almost be better off without it.

Quinn Norton writes about copyright for Wired News and other publications. Her work has ranged from legal journalism to the inner life of pirate organizations.

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