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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Laying the Ashdown on Hatch

Earlier this week, I was infuriated by this article by Makan Delrahim. It's filled with false dichotomies and ad hominem attacks on Mark Cuban and Senator Orrin Hatch's political foes. It's also factually inaccurate on several counts.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Senate Candidate Pete Ashdown defend himself in an LTE today. The letter was prepublished on Ashdown's blog.

Ashdown has signed the IPac Statement of Principles and is specifically running to stop Hatch's unhinged pursuit of ever-stronger copyright protection.

How refreshing.

Blogging a dead horse

I know I already complained about her article, but Susan Cheever's misunderstanding of copyright law is just driving me batty.

She literally maps the entirety of property law onto copyright law and uses this half-suited metaphor to guide her highly moralistic judgements. In a December 12 Newsday piece entitled "Just Google 'thou shalt not steal,'" she makes copyright claims that would make even Jack Valenti blush. (Okay, so that's a metaphor, too. BUSTED.)

To wit:
Words are property. This principle has been upheld by the law since 1710, when the first copyright law was passed.
Actually, Ms. Cheever, you're talking about the Statute of Anne, which (according to the text of the Act and every generation of British Parliament since its passage) says no such thing. Quite the contrary. British publishers even arranged a collusive lawsuit to try to apply common law principles of property to copyright in books, which failed. When a real lawsuit came out as the publishers wanted (Millar v. Taylor, 1769), that principle actually did make it onto the law books--for five whole years. It was overturned by Donaldson v. Becket in 1774, and the Donaldson precedent--that the copyright monopoly is not subject to the common law rules of tangible property--has stood ever since (Vaidhyanathan, 2001, pp. 42-43).

Let's try one more:
It's a strange experience to see your own property in someone else's possession when they haven't asked your permission for it or paid for it. It's disorienting and infuriating. You've been robbed. That's how it feels when something of yours suddenly appears in cyberspace, whether it's a chair or a book excerpt, a table or a newspaper column.
I cannot speak to how Ms. Cheever feels when she has her words appear online without her permission, but it sure is a lot different than if and when her lounge chair appears on eBay (a comparison she literally makes). If I take her La-Z-Boy, she has one less. If I take her words (as I'm doing now, in fair-use-sized chunks), those words are still just as I found them.

Speaking of fair use:
The Copyright Statute also includes a "fair use" clause, so that a few lines or phrases of a writer's work can be used as illustration by someone else. The amount of words that constitute fair use varies according to court case. At present, it is 400 words.
While I'm no attorney, I'd be much more comfortable using 401 words in a book review than I would be giving out such patently incorrect and totally unfounded legal advice. I've been obsessively studying the copyright debate for a few years now (ask my friends and family; they'll vouch), and I had never even heard this claim before. But I knew the "400 words" detail had mattered at some point. So I looked it up. It's from the Harper & Row v. The Nation case. Harper was about to publish Gerald Ford's autobiography. Time Magazine had an exclusive deal to prepublish a 7,500 word excerpt. The Nation scooped Time, publishing around 300-400 words. Because this snippet was the most interesting part (Ford's discussion of how he felt as he pardoned Nixon), the court ruled that it was not fair use. The Supremes upheld the District Court's ruling that The Nation took "the heart" of the work, directly reducing Harper's ability to collect revenue from this subsidiary revenue stream. (Time pulled out, costing them $12,500.)

Here's how dead-ass wrong Cheever got it. The key finding was that a quotation of even less than 400 words could be an unfair use if done in a bad-faith attempt to undercut a publication's market value. In contrast, I could probably quote well over 400 words of Ms. Cheever's radical misunderstanding of copyright law and, since her piece is already published and I am engaged primarily in withering criticism, I would be on reasonable footing to make a fair use claim.

One more:
Google doesn't like the copyright laws as they have existed for centuries.
This is a profound inversion of who's really changing the rules around here. At the behest of the copyright industries, we've gone from something resembling a coherent (if still not public-interest-minded) copyright law to what most commentators describe as a system of insane, overreaching, incomprehensible, First-Amendment-squashing copyright law. (See, e.g., some of the work by David Nimmer, by all acounts one of the foremost experts on US copyright law, who tries but fails to see recent reforms as minimally comprehensible.)

For example: thanks to 17 USC Section 1201 of the DMCA, simple curiosity involving me, a computer, and a half-baked encryption scheme like CSS can get me convicted for a federal crime. Breaking back into my own house because I lost the key is 100% legal, but breaking into my software installer because I lost the key puts me at a legal risk involving fines in the range of thousands of dollars. Fair use is not even a defense; hacking into a DVD to make a documentary involving fair use snippets is still 100% illegal.

In 1997, the exclusive right of publication wasn't enough for the copyright industries; they wanted to take away my freedom to tinker as well. It is now illegal to make a backup copy of my 5-year-old niece's favorite DVD. That's even though copying a software install CD for the exact same reason is 110% legal. Backup DVD? Illegal. Backup software? Legal. Making a new software key for legally purchased software? Illegal. Make sense to you? Me neither.

Bring your tale of copyright "theft" woe to Dimytry Sklyarov, who was arrested merely for developing software that could manipulate Adobe eBooks. He was arrested in the US for breaking an American law, even though he did all his programming in Russia.

Well, Ms. Cheever, now you've had a lot of your words "stolen" and put up online. But I didn't steal them at all. I quoted them, and I did it because they were wrong. Morally wrong, yes, but mostly just inaccurate. They're based on the utterly incorrect notion that copyright law has any literal relationship to property law. The relationship is metaphorical at best, like TIME IS MONEY or ARGUMENT IS WAR. Just to clarify, here are some literal claims:
The Authors Guild is using its hefty stash of copyrighted materials, a collection of legally granted monopolies not to be confused with common law property, to seek at least partial control over Google Print.

The Guild is seeking control up to and including veto power over business methods and is also probably expecting a cut of revenues.

Google Print will actually increase the propensity that any given user will buy any given book because, unlike Grokster, Google will provide just enough to spark people's interest.

Some of the finest legal minds in copyright commentary, including the initially skeptical William Patry, have weighed in on Google's side.

Making a copy of an entire book is potentially fair use; what really matters, from the standpoint of many of the above-cited legal minds, is how much of the book is accessible to the public, whether publishers can opt out, and other banal details of implementation.

Susan Cheever wrote a highly moralistic column about copyright law which contains several obvious and inescapable misunderstandings of copyright law.
These are propositional claims, which are literally true or false; "words are property" is a metaphor, a cancerous metaphor that has metastasized throughout much of the body of copyright commentary.

As for you, Ms. Cheever, I didn't steal or even borrow your words. Go to LexNex; they're still there. Just like your La-Z-Boy.

Oh, and unlike Newsday, this will be available on the public internet indefinitely. Care to retort?

Monday, December 12, 2005

TPMs and Metaphors: the DMCA debate

I'm currently working on a paper for Klaus Krippendorff's class, Social Constructions of Reality. It's a discourse analysis of the debate surrounding 17 USC ยง 1201.

The central conclusion is that one of the most interesting and important threads of the debate is the wrangling over the metaphor of locked-down property. If I come up with anything profound or insightful and it goes anywhere, I'll be sure to post it on this, our copyright blog and source for general media policy and media criticism fun.

In the meantime, here's a link-fest for articles and other miscellany, listed in decreasing order of their relevance:
CNet coverage of a recent congressional hearing

Said hearing

LA Times opinion piece from today, arguing that the entertainment industry willingly shreds our fair use rights

Hackariffic Newsday piece today by Susan Cheever (who literally reduces your knowledge of copyright law by your reading her article) which literally claims that "words are property"

A brief description and full text of the Harper & Row v. The Nation case that Cheever certainly did not read but through fifth-hand misunderstanding apparently seems to be citing
If only there were enough discourse around to analyze...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

RIAA madness

Not that we need more proof that the RIAA is mad, but apparently their latest target is now suing software and websites that provide song lyrics.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

DRM Links

Here are a couple links from Dan, my traveling writer friend:

The lead singer of OK Go sounds off in this New York Times opinion piece about why copy-protected CDs are a bad idea.

Also, a writer for The Register suggests that the EFF shouldn't be involved in the Sony rootkit legal case because they are likely to screw it up.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

EFF disses, avoids DMCA rulemaking

The EFF has publicly dissed the Copyright Office's triennial DMCA rulemaking, refusing even to participate.

This is a reasonable reaction to the three-branch monte, "where's the fair use" shell game that is the triennial rulemaking.

Read the brief report (pdf). Additionally, read a more thorough critique: Catch 1201 (shameless plug).