Updated! Massachusetts Police Dept. Files DMCA Takedowns On News Stories Using Mugshots Taken By Police

from the copyright-as-censorship dept

Update: We’ve written up a followup to this post, noting that the Chief of Police in Burlington insists that this was not done by them, and they have no problem with the press using these images. It would appear that someone else is abusing copyright law to try to block these stories — and since the stories are about people being arrested, it’s not hard to put together a list of people with motives to abuse copyright law in this manner. Please read the follow up post, before reading this original post below.

Here we are with yet another example of copyright as censorship. This one comes from the Shooting the Messenger blog, which dug up a fascinating story of how the Burlington, Massachusetts Police Department appears to be abusing copyright law to try to censor articles written about people they’ve arrested. Specifically, a representative from the police department has filed a bunch of DMCA notices with Google, targeting around 30 news stories, claiming the Police Department holds the copyright on the mugshots used in those stories. You can see one of the notices over at the Lumen Database, and you’ll quickly notice that it’s not like they’re targeting fly-by-night websites, but all sorts of big name press outfits, including CBS, the Boston Herald and the Denver Post.

The explanation given is pretty silly too in that it’s barely comprehensible:

Good afternoon My name is Mike Ferrell. I am the agent legal from the Burlington Police Department (Intellectual Property, Piracy, Copyright/DMCA) located in Massachusetts. I inform you that the infringing content in question awarded or issued previously are infringing our Copyright since these photographs/images are our property, is fully belonging to us. We are the properties, authors or creators of the content that previously indicated content and request of immediate actions appropriate or respective. We need it more soon as possible relevant/correct actions/measures are taken as more before possible, or otherwise we proceed to take action on our own. Thanks circumvention content: http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Arrest-of-two-men-in-death-of-woman.html http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Three-man-arrested-in-connection-with-string-of-store-jewelry-robberies.html http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Nine-arrested-in-sting-operation.html http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Teens-arrested-in-mosque-vandalism-incident.html http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Eight-arrested-in-prostitution-sweep.html http://www.burlingtonpolice.org/Seven-johns-charged-in-reverse-prostitution-sting.html circumvention mechanism: Providing photographies/images protected for us.

Now, as we’ve discussed in the past, works of the federal government are simply not subject to copyright law. When it moves down to the states, it’s either not entirely clear or subject to specific state laws. And in Massachusetts, the rule is that “records created by governments are not copyrighted and are available for public use.” Separately, in Massachusetts, it’s been determined that mugshots are public records, meaning that the police department has even less control here. And of course, even if these images were subject to copyright protections, their use in reporting would clearly be fair use.

Assuming that Mike Ferrell actually represents the Burlington Police Department, it appears that he and the police department are flagrantly violating the law in an attempt to censor news stories in the public interest. If he doesn’t represent the Burlington Police Department, he’s also misrepresenting himself, and potentially committing perjury, as an official DMCA notice requires stating, under the penalty of perjury, that you’re authorized on behalf of the copyright holder.

No matter what… something not good is happening here, and it’s yet another in an increasingly long list of examples of censorship by copyright.

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Comments on “Updated! Massachusetts Police Dept. Files DMCA Takedowns On News Stories Using Mugshots Taken By Police”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I wish I could rate this as insightful more than once. While it’s certainly POSSIBLE that this notice came from Li’l Piggly Bo Peep, it’s far more likely to be the work of someone who wants their mugshot hidden. The real question is whether said mugshot model did this themself, or whether it was done by a reputation management company.

Slightly Cowardly Anonymous says:

Really? So Fake It Hurts

There is no way (well, I shouldn’t say that… stupid people do float and PD can be a big tank) this can be legit. This appears more like someone trying to do some reputation repair/concealment.

Let’s skip the fact no adult over the age of 18 who has passed high school and speaks English should of written that, never mind one who is supposedly “agent legal” for Burlington PD’s “Intellectual Property, Piracy, Copyright/DMCA” should write. I don’t have the time nor patience for that argument (but it factors into my end result).

Only two stories were actually targeted. One about two 18 year-old men defacing a mosque and one about 9 men being arrested on a prostitution sting (both last November, 22nd and 23rd to be exact). Maybe they’re just slow… police officers/public servants are not robots, after all.

We’ll move on to how one of the URL’s cited as “infringing” is for http://www.jgpr.net/2015/11/22/9093/, or the site for John Guilfoil Public Relations. The PR firm for the police department, who also runs the “official” PD WordPress (https://bpdsocialmedia.wordpress.com/, link is from the Burlington PD site at http://www.burlington.org/departments/police/index.php, we’ll get to that in a moment). I would hope that the “agent legal” for the PD knows who the heck the PR firm for the PD is. Or maybe he doesn’t.

Next, let’s address URLs. The take down notice cites burlingtonpolice.org as the original site others are infringing on (strangely, they claim there are a few stories that are infringed such as two men killing a woman and a string of jewelry heists but no infringing URLs for those are ever given). This would be a credible source, except, burlingtonpolice.org was registered 10-16-2016 to an AOL.com account. “Police departments used to use AOL!” I hear you, calm down. The problem is the “official” site for the police is bpd.org which redirects right to http://www.burlington.org/departments/police/index.php. Go check WhoIs… the record is pretty fudged. Whomever registered the site took the info from Burlington.org except the admin e-mail (a school system IT guy, but they used his phone number) while the legit bpd.org record uses the actual address for the department, was registered back in 1995, and the admin address appears to be an actual person with a burlmass.org address (which is slightly harder to verify, but appears legit as well). Doesn’t help burlingtonpolice.org does not appear to be a site that’s up at the moment (all URLs for source 404, site appears to be not setup).

So we have someone who is barely literate trying to take down two stories on sites that include the PD PR firm using a source URL that looks mighty suspicious to very light investigation? I know the trend is lynch the government agents/employees/departments first but let’s try to make an informed decision (something this site often asks people to do). This looks more like a duck pretending to be a horse, but it’s still quacking… did anyone bother calling the PD (using the contact number on their page) to see if this dude even works for them?

TL;DR – I did basic detective work (on a police story), found the “agent legal” is fairly non-credible (as did Google). Stow pitchforks for now, but keep them handy.

lars626 (profile) says:

Language skills

The whole thing looks like it was written by someone with limited English skills, as in foreign and with little practice or coaching.

Either Burlington farmed this out or somebody didn’t like a story about them and decided to impersonate the cops. If it is the second case they will then have the Burlington cops after them for a federal violation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Language skills

I don’t think this guy cares about federal offenses because he most likely isn’t in the US. I mean, he obviously doesn’t speak English. You might get him for something like wire fraud, since he used the Internet to do this.

But if he WAS arrested, this would be a case where you might actually see a perjury conviction. One, this isn’t just a case of misidentifying infringing material or disregarding fair use – he is (I assume, based on his non-English and Slightly Cowardly Anonymous’s research) falsely claiming to be the agent of the copyright holder, which means the perjury clause actually applies. Two, he’s falsely claiming to represent a police department. So it’s less likely that law enforcement will just ignore this like they might with something else.

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