Copyright As Censorship: Author Removes Blog Post After Being Threatened For Quoting 4 Sentences
from the fair-use dept
It’s amazing how frequently we see stories of copyright being used as censorship — even in cases where the copyright claims are obviously bogus. Being on the receiving end of a threat is no fun, and it’s not surprising that many people choose to cave in, rather than fight. Back in early 2011, author Patti O’Shea wrote a blog post on her personal blog about a “Human Factors Training” exercise she did for work. She talks about one of the exercises, in which the attendees were given a scenario and then had to prioritize:
You’re on a plane that crashed in the Sonora desert. The pilot and copilot are dead, but you and your classmates are unharmed. Your plane was 70 miles off the course that was filed prior to take off and you crashed 50 miles southwest of a mining camp. You have 15 items with which to survive. Rank them from most important to least important.
She then lists out the items:
The items were: a flashlight with four batteries, big jack knife, aeronautical chart of the area, big plastic raincoat, magnetic compass, compresses and bandages, 45 caliber gun with bullets, red and white parachute, bottle of salt tablets, 1 liter of water per person, book titled “Edible Desert Animals”, pair of sunglasses per person, 1 liter bottle of alcohol (96%), light summer coat per person, makeup mirror.
I’ve actually done this very exercise a few times in the past (I think even in junior high or high school). It’s incredibly common and I’ve seen slight variations on it for years. You can see a very similar version on the Google Lunar X Prize site, for example. But there are others as well. The idea is hardly a unique one.
O’Shea quoted those few lines, and then detailed what her group chose (with some explanations for why or where they agreed/disagreed) and then briefly discussed how they compared to “experts” and how well her group did against everyone else (they had the best score, compared to the experts). All in all, the blog post was 12 paragraphs, only one of which quoted the scenario in question. Of course, if you go to that blog page now, you get a very different story:
This blog was removed because Human Synergistics International (the company who holds the rights to the training material that was used in the class I talked about here) sent a take-down notice claiming my quoting of four sentences violated their copyright. I believe their take-down notice to be without merit. As an author, I respect copyright and I believe the quote was covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.
However, despite this, I’ve removed the post. It’s not worth the time or energy arguing about a blog article that was nearly two years old when the notice was received.
You see, Human Synergistics International sent her a legal takedown, nearly two years after the blog post went up:
It has come to our attention that you are displaying some text from the Desert Survival Situation™ on your website at: http://www.pattioshea.com/blog/2011/01/26/were-doomed/ without prior permission. The Desert Survival Situation is copyrighted by Human Synergistics International, which has the exclusive right to reproduce, copy, edit, translate and otherwise exercise ownership over the material. Please be advised that we have no agreement that gives you or your organization permission to reproduce this exercise in any format. Therefore, this action constitutes a direct violation of our copyright.
Yeah, let’s not even get into the fact that they felt the need to put the ™ after “Desert Survival Situation.” Either way, it’s difficult to see how O’Shea’s use is not fair use. Human Synergistics might not like it, but its claims of what its “exclusive rights” are, without recognizing exceptions like fair use is a classic case of overstating their rights, also known as copyfraud.
Yes, the company wants to try to require people to hire them if it wants to use this exercise, but they’re still the ones with the “experts’ responses” and who (supposedly) understand how to run the experiment in a useful team-building manner. Revealing the basic scenario doesn’t do any harm to them at all. In fact, one could argue that having people who have gone through the exercise talk about it, as O’Shea did, helps make other people more interested in hiring the company to run that training exercise. But, really, who wants to hire a company that runs around issuing copyright legal threats to people who went through their program and were excited enough about it to talk about it publicly?
Either way, below is the image of what O’Shea’s blog post used to look like. Even though she’s confident that her use qualified as fair use, it’s just not worth fighting about. And that, of course, is the real shame in all of this, and how copyright is used to censor perfectly reasonable expression — merely by the threat of legal action.