Teespring Takes Down Our Copying Is Not Theft Gear, Refuses To Say Why
from the so-now-it's-on-threadless dept
At Techdirt we’re no strangers to people disagreeing — often, let’s say, vehemently — with our views on copyright. But I’ve still often been surprised by how angry some people get about the simple, factual observation that copying is not theft. We’ve made the point many times (and it remains true even if you think copyright infringement is a dastardly crime), and a few years ago we put it on a t-shirt and some other products via the print-on-demand platform Teespring, where we sell a bunch of gear. But you won’t find the shirt at those links anymore, because last week we received notice from Teespring that it had been taken down… supposedly for copyright infringement.
At first, it seemed like this was likely a simple error from an automated system (the takedown notification explained that it was not based on a complaint from a third party) and I suspected we had been caught up in Teespring’s response to an unrelated (and amusing) phenomenon that was taking place at the same time: a bunch of artists and others online were aiming to prove that there are bots out there copying artwork from social media and selling it on print-on-demand sites, by spreading funny and extremely-infringing images which did, indeed, show up on several print-on-demand t-shirts soon afterwards.
Oooh man, the website deleted the shirt (I wonder why…)
But I really REALLY love this artwork as shirt, wouldn't it be amazing if we can buy this as a shirt or mug? ???? pic.twitter.com/GAmheljoT8
— Nirbion (@Nirbion) December 4, 2019
It would hardly be surprising if this spurred print-on-demand services into a not-too-discerning copyright sweep of existing products that the Copying Is Not Theft gear somehow got caught up in. As we are constantly pointing out, content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. I figured that a quick email to the “IP Escalations” address offered in the takedown notification, clarifying that the design does not in fact include any “third-party content” as the notification claimed, would get it reinstated. But to my surprise, they responded that they could not reinstate the campaign because it violates Teespring’s Acceptable Use Policies. One of the six policies is about intellectual property — explicitly the problem according to the initial notification email — but they offered no response to my claim that the content was entirely original, and it seemed they were backing down from the IP angle and just going for a vague response of “it violates one of these five other rules”. Since it certainly contains no nudity, hate speech, or violence, I can only assume they believe it either “promotes illegal activity” or (less likely given the definitions on their policy page) contains “false or misleading claims”.
Unfortunately all I can do is guess, because it seems like they really don’t like being asked for an explanation. Upon first asking what policy we violated, I got a reply simply linking to the same policy page with no additional information. I clarified that I’d read the page, that we were not in violation of any of the policies, and asked which of the six in the list was the issue. It was at this point their true feelings started to peek through the mandatory please-and-thanks language of customer service:
We apologize if you disagree with our decision and for any inconvenience this matter has caused. Please understand that we are not in a position to debate our policies or discuss this issue further; however, your feedback has been noted and we truly appreciate your time today.
I told them I wasn’t seeking a debate, and just wanted to know what policy we violated, and…
You’ve been advised three times that the content has violated our acceptable use policy. You have been provided with the links to this policy for further information. This policy and choice to remove the content are not up for discussion. We apologize if you disagree with the decision. You will not receive anymore communication from us on this matter.
And so apparently that’s that. I enjoy the sleight-of-hand in claiming that a list of six policies is an answer to my question of which specific policy we violated (and the sudden switch in their language from plural to singular when I emphasized this question), and the fact that the “IP Escalations” department we were specifically told to contact if we believed the takedown was in error considers this “not up for discussion”. It seems most likely that someone at Teespring believes the phrase “copying is not theft” is promoting illegal acts, when in fact its purpose is to emphasize an important legal (and ethical, and practical) distinction that should be obvious but that a surprising number of people casually ignore or actively oppose — and, as noted, it remains important even if you are a supporter of strong copyright laws.
Of course, Teespring is free to take down our stuff without an explanation or even a reason if it wants, and it doesn’t have to offer an escalation contact at all, let alone a helpful one. And if it’s true there was some sort of sweep going on and lots of people were contesting takedowns, we may still have simply been victims of sheer scale — though the unhelpful emails still make it clear that the decision was examined and confirmed by an actual human, so I’m still quite curious about the official rationale. But since it’s “not up for discussion,” the more important conclusion here is that it’s time to start exploring alternatives to Teespring for our various lines of Techdirt gear.
So today we’re relaunching the Copying Is Not Theft gear in our new store on Threadless.
For now we’re just testing the waters with this new platform — the product lines and pricing are a bit different, which means some options are gone (no stickers for now) but we’re also able to add some cool new ones, including notebooks, phone cases, buttons, bags and more!
If all goes well, we may consider moving all our designs over to the Threadless store, or we may end up exploring some other options in the future. For now, get yourself some gear and remember: Copying Is Not Theft!