Bizarre 'Attribution' Troll Bullies Twitter Users Into Compliance With Baseless Legal Threats
from the tongue-not-made-of-glass dept
My apologies ahead of time for the length of this piece, but anything shorter wouldn’t do the subject justice. I will, however, provide plenty of pictures and blockquotes. This post deals with a strange copyright troll, which bullies people into properly attributing a quoted poem. The troll runs across multiple social media platforms but does a bulk of its “work” at Twitter, where it can receive instantaneous feedback. Along the way, we’ll deal with the poet himself, a company called On Press Inc. and some other connections which seem to indicate the poet himself is behind the trolling, along with a threatened lawsuit against me for copyright infringement, defamation and false claims.
It starts out simply enough. As a contributor to this site, I was doing the sort of thing we do in our downtime — running a Twitter search for the term “infringement.” The search results were dominated by tweets from an account that looked exactly like this one.
Only it wasn’t this one. The account I saw had this name: @xsaonpress.
When I returned the next day, I was greeted with the message that the above account had been suspended. Odd. So, I searched again, only this time using the keywords “tongues” and “glass,” — two words in the title of the poem in question — and found that On Press was still in business.
On Press Inc., supposedly a division of Knopf Publishing (according to its Twitter profiles), was running a search of its own and issuing tweet after threatening tweet to anyone who dared publish a short (really short — under 140 characters) poem by reclusive poet, Shaun Shane, without attribution. The entire poem reads as follows:
“If only our tongues were made of glass, how much more careful we would be when we speak.”
This poem’s claim to fame is its use in the Invisible Children/Kony 2012 campaign. The link presented by On Press during these Twitter blowups is an Invisible Children-branded photo that quotes the poem and gives proper attribution, albeit a possibly belated one. On Press’ blood was first stirred up by a Huffington Post story about Invisible Children back in April of 2012, which led to this angry comment from On Press:
The Organization Invisible Children has plagiarized and thus committed copyright infringement ( which is illegal) on their website and on their Twitter account, a work by Shaun Shane. Exemplifying the criticism against them that they do not research their facts and have sloppy journalist methods. (Here is a link: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/) and to the Twitter post (https://twitter.com/#!/Invisible/status/196433854851055618/photo/1)
After sending out an ignored invitation (via direct message) to discuss these “tactics,” I decided to throw out some bait.
Soon, I was receiving the same set of tweets I’d seen filling up my search results the night before. On Press, utilizing one of its many, many Twitter accounts, gave me its usual combination of Shaun Shane info and legal threats. On Press has a very shaky grasp on IP law, but it doesn’t let its ignorance stop it from trotting out nearly every term (plagiarism, theft) imaginable in hopes of quick compliance.
The first false claim it makes is that Twitter will shut down an account for a single infringement violation. Not true. Twitter may shut down an account for multiple cases of infringement, but a single report won’t result in the removal of an account, as is clearly stated in the Twitter terms of service. (On Press has also made claim that this process will shut down an account in 4 hours. You may laugh at this one.)
Twitter will also terminate a user’s account if the user is determined to be a repeat infringer.
If the proper steps are followed (via the DMCA form), the offending Tweet will simply be “withheld,” with a notice replacing the original Tweet. Finally, On Press delivers this bizarre phrase:
For an entity so concerned with copyright infringement, it certainly doesn’t seem to understand the terminology it’s throwing around. “Libel” and “liable” are nowhere close to each other in definition, and you’d think an entity this concerned with infringement would know the difference (or at least be able to spell the one it actually means).
Then there’s On Press Inc itself, which has its own issues. As you can see from its profile photo, On Press claims to be a division of Knopf Publishing. However, we contacted Knopf Publishing for comment and they said that there is no division of Knopf called On Press Inc. On Press has apparently decided an appearance of Shane’s poem in a Poem-A-Day-Celebration hosted by Tumblr and Knopf allows it to add Knopf’s name to its profile… and the large publisher’s weight to its fight against unattributed use, despite no official connection to the company.
On Press also utilizes multiple simultaneous Twitter accounts, in violation of the Twitter Rules.
Serial Accounts: You may not create serial accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes, or with overlapping use cases. Mass account creation may result in suspension of all related accounts. Please note that any violation of the Twitter Rules is cause for permanent suspension of all accounts.
In one night, my interactions with On Press Inc. included input from the following accounts: @copyrightdept, @vesoaonpress, @vseawonpress, @wasweonpress, @xaswonpress and @xseionpress. All accounts sported the same On Press logo and spouted the same tweets. One could try to make a claim that these accounts are not “disruptive” or “abusive” (and I’d love to watch them make that claim), but there’s little doubt On Press Inc’s multiple accounts are “overlapping.” (@vseawonpress is the only account not suspended at the time of this writing.)
Now, although I was receiving the same stream of misspellings and misinformation from On Press as the other users posting Shaun Shane’s (unattributed) poem, I wasn’t seeing any signs of life. I was pretty much convinced it was a bot running multiple accounts. To test that theory, I called out On Press on the false claims directed my way, specifically the assertion that Twitter would delete my account for a single violation. To my surprise, it provoked a very human reaction.
So, there was a human behind the account, one who handily provided a link to the terms of service that directly contradicted what he had just said. (I’ve shifted pronouns, but an explanation is on the way.)
Once I had his/its attention, I pointed out On Press’ suspicious behavior — namely, the multiple suspended accounts linked to its name.
On Press responded with this blast of angry tweets, stating that Twitter itself generated these accounts for it.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but this claim is completely false. Mike contacted Twitter to ask about whether or not, as On Press claims, it creates thousands of automatically generated accounts for companies with which to harass infringers, and (no surprise) Twitter said there is no truth to this claim.
I attempted to gather more information, but my overtures were rejected. At one point, an On Press account mentioned it performed this “service” for “other authors” but refused to name any. It also failed to cough up a usable URL that might indicate On Press Inc exists outside of multiple Twitter accounts.
Shortly thereafter, the accounts went ballistic, showering me with a long list of legal threats.
This was prompted by its discovery of a tongue-in-cheek review of the only book On Press has for sale, one I had posted earlier that night. (You may notice a second review has suddenly appeared — from the same person who showed up to criticize my review.)
Again, On Press made several dubious claims, including the ridiculous suggestion that Twitter would surrender my IP address to the police on the strength of a fake review posted on an entirely different site. It also seemed to feel that the Feds would be interested simply because I was using a computer.
However, he/it wasn’t kidding about one thing: “legal prosecution.” The morning following this bizarre conversation with On Press (Feb. 8th), Techdirt received a phone call seeking to confirm that I “worked for Techdirt,” with the “lawyer” on the phone saying that he wished to serve me with a lawsuit (at Techdirt’s headquarters) for “copyright infringement, defamation of character and making false claims.”
To date, nothing has been filed, despite the voicemail implying the lawsuit was already filed. But here’s the great thing about legal threats: nothing being served to this point doesn’t mean nothing ever will. The possibility still exists and the potential plaintiff is free to file anytime before the statute of limitations expires. This is likely a bluff, but it carries enough weight to make any future direct interaction with On Press ill advised, to say the least. This leaves him/it free to aggressively pursue those posting the poem without attribution, without worrying that I might ruin the fun by pointing out its false claims.
With the threat of a lawsuit still hanging overhead, I’m simply going to present my findings, all backed up with screenshots and/or links, with a minimum of speculative commentary.
The On Press Inc. “Network”
First off, let’s address the “him/it” issue. On Press Inc. seems to exist solely as multiple accounts spanning several social media platforms. Running a search will serve up a few hits on existing businesses with the same name, but I have confirmed that these are unrelated to this bizarre attribution trolling.
A Poem Is Nothing
Shane’s book is print-on-demand. Amazon doesn’t list it this way, but other booksellers do. So, there’s no pile of unsold paperbacks sitting in an On Press warehouse. This may explain why there’s so little effort made to provide infringers with a “buy” link during the barrage of tweets and comments.
The On Press Twitter horde usually presents two links. One of them leads to this video displaying “proof” that someone (d/b/a On Press, Inc., with no address displayed) holds the copyright to “Tongues Made of Glass.” (The other links to the Invisible Children photo.)
Now, a video like this could be made by literally anyone (with hands) and hardly presents a solid case for On Press’ claim to Shaun Shane’s poem. None of his work has been registered at the US Copyright office, either by himself or by On Press (or by anyone, actually). This limits any legal liability for infringement to actual proven damages, making the threat of a lawsuit slightly more tolerable. Also, the claims made at the end of the video, which appear to be a bastardization of the typical “copyright policies” found on sporting events, saying no copies can be made “without written consent of the publisher,” overstates the powers given under copyright law in ignoring the possibility of fair use or other exceptions to copyright law.
Interestingly, the voice on the “copyright” video sounds nearly identical to Shaun Shane himself. Shane has a very distinctive cadence and tone to his voice, as evidenced by this live performance.
[Shane’s voice also bears heavy, heavy resemblance to that of James Roth (“representing On Press Incorporated”), the caller who contacted Techdirt about serving me with the lawsuit.]
So, is On Press simply Shaun Shane, reclusive poet and attribution seeker? He’d certainly be the person most interested in enforcing this. His impossibly glowing bio at PoemHunter puts Shane in Schrodinger’s Box, theorizing that he’s dead (“…had become terminally ill and his re-emergence was to reinforce the ethic of Pure Poetry or Truly Modernist Poetry before his death…”), before theorizing in the opposite direction a few sentences later (“though it is believed, if he is still alive, he lives on the West Coast…“) One of the On Press Twitter accounts I dealt with claimed Shane was dead and had willed that his work be used to raise money for various children’s charities. (Too bad no one’s trying to sell that book…) This claim is echoed at Pinterest, where the same sort of attribution-badgering occurs.
Whether Mr. Miche is real or simply Shaun using another name remains to be proven. (It does share a Shaun Shane-like bit of alliteration.) Miche patrols Pinterest, sending users who re-pin this photo the same sort of messages as the Twitter accounts do, only without the character limit.
Miche also sports the same shaky legal grasp and penchant for baseless threats.
Here Miche chases down a user (who deleted her tweet) and continues harassing her at her Pinterest account, claiming that people like her using an unattributed quote can “cause untold billions of dollars of lost [sic] for companies who support and publisher [sic] Authors [sic… again] works.” Miche also seems to make the claim that she’s legally responsible for any retweets (a claim echoed in return by the On Press Twitter accounts).
Also of note: the single DMCA notice attributed to On Press was issued by Mike Miche. The notice has the sender’s name redacted, but a duckduckgo search reveals Miche’s name in the search results. If this is really Shaun Shane, he’s either using false information to file DMCA notices, or Mike Miche is his real name (Shaun Shane is a pseudonym, according to his bio).
Hopewell has sent out similar messages to Facebook users, again seeking attribution and using identical wording.
There are a few differences that might indicate she was just “pitching in” with the attribution push (“This Poem is our copyrighted property your use of it uncredited to him constitutes thief.”), but by and large, it resembles missives issued at other platforms.
A followup on one post switches from “informative” to “pissed off” instantly when challenged, much like my earlier interactions with Shaun/On Press did when I refused to play ball:
We send and deal with 1000’s of take down notices every day. Hardly do we need your amateurish insight into what constitutes legal and effective enforcement of our Copyright .
Hopewell is a real human being, however, and is very definitely not Shaun Shane. She has an account at Google+, and her writing there doesn’t bear much resemblance to what’s posted on Facebook. There is a very interesting interaction on her timeline that indicates “Shaun Shane” is probably alive.
Anne Murphy has also made posts on Facebook concerning Shane’s poem and seems to be located in Texas (at least judging from the locations of most of her Friends). The wording is almost identical to the Facebook posts by Alexandria Hopewell, suggesting the same author wrote them. She has also uploaded a few videos of Shaun Shane performances to YouTube. (Interestingly, the phone number on the caller ID from the call by “James Roth” to contact Techdirt is registered to Anne Murphy and also to a vegetable farm, the O.P. Murphy Produce Company — both in Texas. Also worth noting: there does not appear to be a “James Roth” listed on the Texas state bar. If whoever called is not, in fact, a lawyer, they might want to familiarize themselves with Texas law 38.122 which makes it a felony to impersonate a lawyer.)
But that’s not all. Shane/On Press also stalks Tumblr with multiple accounts (some of which are filled with work-from-home scam posts), issuing the now-familiar statements demanding attribution. A search for the terms “Shaun Shane” and “On Press” also brings up hits on several other platforms. On Press/Shane is very busy, though (as far as I can see) never seems to direct anyone towards buying the actual book.
He has also ramped up the aggression, perhaps as a result of his “successful” legal threat. The On Press Twitter interactions were never pleasant, but the latest ones have a decidedly malevolent tone that’s undercut slightly by the sheer number of false claims they contain. It doesn’t help that the poem is most frequently tweeted by teens — a demographic On Press/Shane seems to enjoy hurling threats towards.
On Press now threatens to contact the police, sue parents and hold teens responsible for any retweets their followers send out. Here’s a few choice quotes:
“know that you can be track by your ip address and that your parents will be the one’s who are sued since you are a minor…”
“know that the average cost is $4000.00 per instance but that is times the number of follwers you have, or the number people who are exposed to your illegal post…”
“…but if you were bright you wouldn’t have been stupid enought to tweet the poem in the first place…”
“WE don’t care if you care. Your account will be terminated that is all that matters to us. We are indifferent to your feelings about it. your just some dumb kid.”
There are some interesting legal theories mixed up in there that we have not seen before. I particularly like the idea that infringement is multiplied by the number of followers you have. This would appear to be an entirely novel interpretation (by which I mean “wrong”) of 17 USC 504, which has always been clear that the amount of statutory damages paid is per work infringed, not by the number of people who saw the work.
So, what’s the point? Why should we care? On Press/Shane is just seeking attribution. It’s not like he’s sending out settlement letters. Well, for starters, this is not how the system is supposed to work. Those concerned about infringement are directed to Twitter’s DMCA form, which to date, On Press has used only once. Apparently, this method is much less satisfying than the instant feedback one gets while hounding Twitter users (even going so far as to follow them to other platforms, as Mike Miche [above] did).
I’m not pissed off that On Press circumvents a system many rights holders find inefficient. I’m pissed off that On Press deceives people about its relationship with a major publisher, using that as leverage to harass users with a variety of baseless threats. It doesn’t help that the users receiving the most abuse are teenagers who did nothing more than post a quote they liked, who are then threatened with arrest and lawsuits against their parents in return.
I’m pissed off that On Press is fighting a battle it can’t win utilizing bullying tactics. It seems to want respect, but keeps forgetting respect is something you earn — not something you beat into people. People may start to respect the stick, but they’ll never respect the entity wielding it.
Furthermore, if I was a rights holder hoping to protect my creations, I’d be pissed off that someone out there is doing serious damage to copyright itself with a scorched earth policy of baseless threats and vindictive bullying. It makes it that much harder to fight infringement when any existing level of respect has been torn down by another’s overly aggressive tactics.
Finally, if I’m Shaun Shane, and I’m not behind this? I’m fucking furious. Any potential legacy or possibility of expanding my audience has been absolutely destroyed by someone who has used my name to harangue internet users across multiple platforms, utilizing angry missives filled with misspellings, deception, baseless legal threats and a very dangerous misunderstanding of IP law in general.
And Shaun, if this is actually you? You’re only hurting yourself and your reputation by hammering unwitting Twitter users (among others) for this act of omission. There’s nothing wrong with seeking proper attribution. But there are so many methods that work better than this. You can’t stop unattributed quotes from flying around the internet. You can’t even slow it down.
Do you seriously think anyone’s going to Google a tweet to make sure it doesn’t belong to someone else before retweeting it? Do you really think people are going to Google “Shaun Shane” unless you bring it up first? Pinterest users, right or wrong, aren’t going to do a reverse image search before repinning. Sure, it sucks that stuff strays so far from the original creators, but that’s the price you pay for unprecedented access to millions of creative works.
But the benefits outweigh the negatives. Unprecedented access works both ways. You can connect with potential fans and customers in ways that simply weren’t possible 10 years ago. If you’re only going to see the worst aspects, you’ll never be anything more than a set of empty words and threats, spat endlessly into a void, covered in vitriol and self-righteousness. You’ve crafted a poem with viral possibilities but you’re only interested in slamming every door shut as soon as it opens. This final perspective doesn’t make me angry. It just makes me sad. There’s so much potential but you’re too angry to see it. You, and only you, can turn this around.
Additional/supportive links and info.
My Storify account, where I will continue to collect interactions between On Press Inc. and Twitter users.
Album of On Press-related screenshots. (Just in case stuff starts disappearing…)
Google Doc containing more links and various notes. (Collected evidence, likely a work-in-progress.)