With a presidential election around the corner, let’s look at how people pervert copyright law to squelch speech. Copyright takedown notices were never meant to stifle whistle-blowers or detractors, yet that’s become a popular use for them. Individual critics are likely to go broke even if they win a case, so people and ISPs tend to back down at lawyer point.
One of the most repugnant misuses of the takedown notice was by Diebold, a maker of electronic voting machines. Diebold responded to allegations of security flaws with an “Oh no, our machines are fine! Move along!” type of response. But leaked internal Diebold documentation posted on the net confirmed the company knew it was p0wned. Diebold couldn’t deny anything—instead it demanded the documentation be taken offline, on the basis of copyright infringement. According to the EFF, Diebold failed to pass “the giggle test” on that case.
Nobody loves its copyrights and hates its former members like the Church of Scientology. It makes the RIAA look like an amateur when it comes to suing the hell out of its critics, anywhere, anytime. The Church of Scientology has been at it the longest, too. When there’s no legitimate way to gag your critics, you’re down to sending a cease-and-desist letter or hiring a team of ninjas to take them out. The former is a lot cheaper. Even if the latter is more fun.
It goes on... the Jehovah’s Witnesses shutting down a critical website, the rapper Akon trying to shut up conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, etc.
My personal favorite is radio personality Michael Savage. Savage made some comments about Islam on his radio show that were, shall we say, colorful. The nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) posted these comments on its site to highlight his bigotry. So Savage sued for copyright infringement. At no point did he actually try to defend his comments, he just tried to hit CAIR over the head with a big lawyer and intimidate the group into silence. In this case, the EFF stepped in and hit him back.
But it’s such a weak way to shut people up. If you really want to oppress someone, I say get the ninjas.
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.