Copyright is not the only thing that matters online, says Bill Thompson
John Young is a brave and tenacious man, an architect based in New York whose website, cryptome.org, has been a safe online repository for documents that someone, somewhere does not want published. Since 1996 he has resisted pressure from governments, companies and individuals, using the strong protection against prior restraint provided by the US Bill of Rights to publish information about secret surveillance, spying, war crimes and many other topics.
Thanks to a robust policy on the part of his current internet service provider, his site has remained online despite the best efforts of those who are embarrassed by its contents. Until last month, that is, when cryptome.org disappeared from the internet after Network Solutions disabled access to the site’s domain.
Mr Young had not revealed military secrets that put the lives of soldiers at risk, or published the finer details of Britain’s nuclear deterrent capability. The document that got the site kicked offline was not a detailed map of the presidential escape route from the White House, or a list of the lobbyists who have visited Downing Street in the last year, but a 22-page document written by Microsoft. It details how US government agencies can request access to customer data stored on Microsoft servers, like your Hotmail messages, and Microsoft used copyright law to achieve what the US government could not.
The company has since withdrawn its complaint, noting that it only wanted one document removed and was not attempting to restrict access to the whole of Cryptome. Network Solutions has put it back online – with the offending file still present. But the fact that laws passed to protect the commercial interests of creators of original content can evidently have more force than national security concerns should make us all pause.
John Young is not the only one in trouble at the moment. My friend Mark Kobayashi-Hillary had uploaded more than 900 videos to YouTube over the years, most of them related to his specialist area of globalisation and outsourcing, but his account has been removed because of claims that he is infringing copyright.
After some investigation Mark has been told that since he has had three videos removed at the request of rights holders he is a “repeat offender”.
His account was terminated to comply with Federal law after comedian Jimmy Carr’s management company complained of a video he had taken at a recent Carr performance.
YouTube is a US company, so applying US rules seems reasonable, but there has been no legal process and his account was closed without any notice being given to him, so he had no opportunity to question it in advance. And what tips this particular case over from mere irritation into something worthy of Kafka is that the camera phone clip that got Mark’s account removed showed the audience waiting for Jimmy Carr to appear on stage, and not a second of the comic’s performance.
Yet Chambers Management claims that it holds the copyright in any material filmed inside the venue and so his video is infringing. I haven’t seen Mark’s ticket and it may well be that he has assigned copyright to the company by agreeing to the terms and conditions printed in one-point on the back, but even if this is so the absurdity remains.
Right is might
It seems that copyright, a legal framework developed over 300 years to ensure a balance between the interests of the wider community and those of the creative artist has become so tipped towards those of the “rights holder” that few of us can go through a day without breaking the law in one way or another.
The current debate over the Digital Economy Bill in the UK Parliament has revealed that provisions intended to protect the interests of rights-holders by forcing service providers whose networks are used to download unlicensed content to take preventive measures and face prosecution themselves could well force small businesses, universities and even public libraries to severely limit or even abandon their provision of free net access.
And people around the UK are still receiving letters from the legal firm ACS:Law accusing them of downloading material and asking for money to “settle” any claim without recourse to legal process, causing deep concern to many who feel that they are being unjustly accused and coerced into making payments through fear of a legal process they do not understand.
Elsewhere representatives of many governments, including the UK, are currently discussing the detailed provisions of ACTA, the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”, although the exact details are being kept secret and we have only occasional leaks to go by.
ACTA began as an attempt to control the trade in counterfeit goods, which is laudable when applied to prescription medicines and less defensible when applied to cheap handbags. Unfortunately it has expanded in scope to cover digital counterfeiting, and intellectual property rights are apparently now central, offering the prospect that the sort of protections embodied in the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the provisions that obliged YouTube to pull a video when infringement is merely alleged, would apply worldwide.
This has got to stop. We have to say “enough is enough” to those who hold copyrights in songs and images and words and videos. We must refuse to remake the digital world in order to serve only their interests. There is so much more to online life than watching ripped-off copies of big-budget movies or looking at low-resolution cameraphone videos of bands.
We are on the verge of building so many restrictions into online activity that the creativity, inventiveness and sheer joy of life on the net will be squeezed out just to ensure that over-hyped comedians are able to censor videos of their fans waiting for the show to begin. This is not the way forward, but if we do not act now then it will shape the internet that we offer to the billions waiting to get online and change the world. It would be a tragedy if the network the people of East Africa found, now that they have fast fibre links to the rest of the internet, was locked-down, limited and restricted by laws passed to placate fearful Western rights holders and they decided, as a result, that it wasn’t worth joining.