The Chilling Effects Of Copyfraud: Blocking A Researcher From Fair Use... And Scaring Him Into Staying Quiet About It

from the chilling-effects dept

I recently came across yet another story of copyfraud, but due to the nature of our litigious society and the way in which certain companies over-aggressively defend their rights, I need to prevent many of the details from being explained here, and have had to anonymize nearly everything. A family friend recently published a very interesting research paper on a popular topic. To demonstrate a certain point in the paper, he found a perfect image from a book that was published over 50 years ago. Again, to avoid identifying the situation, I cannot provide any more info, other than to say that this the image represented a tiny portion of a much larger work -- and that its usage without a doubt met all of the criteria of a typical fair use defense. The use was for non-profit educational purposes, it was a tiny part of a much larger work (and, in many ways, an inconsequential piece of that larger work, even if it was perfect for the point being demonstrated). The effect on the market for the original work was at worst nil, and at best positive, in that it might cause people to seek out the original work. In my review, it appears that the original work is now long out of print, and it is available only by collectors at an extremely high price. Thus, the use of the work is not for this person's financial benefit, and has absolutely no impact on the original publisher.

Even so, because we unfortunately live in a society where it's been drilled into our heads that you must get permission (even if the entire purpose of the fair use doctrine is for situations like this where no permission is needed), my friend reached out to the very, very large and well known conglomerate that holds the copyright on the original. He explained what he wanted to do and why, very clearly and concisely. The company's response was actually quite friendly, all things considered, and the person who responded appears to reject his request regretfully, noting that she is "in the unenviable position" of having to say no. The reasoning, the letter states, is that the work is protected by intellectual property laws and that the company "must be constantly vigilant and sometimes stringent in exercising control over their use."

There are significant problems with this. The whole point of fair use, again, is that these kinds of uses do not need permission. Furthermore, while trademark law does require some level of "vigilance," the same level of vigilance is not required for copyright law, and it is entirely possible to turn a blind eye to such usage and not lose the powers that copyright grants. Finally, there would be no harm at all in allowing this or even granting the guy a simple license. That would take away nothing from the company's IP rights.

But the bigger issue to me is actually the chilling effects that this situation has had. After sharing all of these details with me, I asked if he would be okay with me publishing the story with the full details. And he refused. Despite recognizing the near certainty of winning any legal dispute (as well as the fact that it is unlikely he would actually get sued), the very small risk alone is too much to bear. The idea that a massive global conglomerate might suddenly choose to sue this guy for some non-profit research he did out of personal interest -- just because of a single graphic to (humorously) illustrate a single point -- just isn't worth it. And that's the classic tale of a chilling effect of copyright law. Scaring people into not speaking up or not presenting their story.

Filed Under: chilling effect, copyfraud, education, fair use, permission


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  1. icon
    chelleliberty (profile), 25 Apr 2012 @ 4:30pm

    RE: but is it copyfraud

    You who accuse Mike of "lying" regarding the copyfraud mention in the headline, did you actually research the origins or meaning of the word? At all?

    Just curious: Wikipedia article on copyfraud.

    Okay, now that you've done your research I point you to the second type of action mentioned as copyfraud: "Imposition by a copyright owner of restrictions beyond what the law allows."

    Now, I can see it as being arguable whether this instance meets the definition of copyfraud. (Here's a link to the definition of arguable in case you need that, too.) Like so: "Did the publisher impose restrictions on fair use, or did it simply not mention something in refusal of a grant of license? If it just didn't mention it, does that actually rise to the level of what should be called copyfraud? I think that it doesn't, because <insert reasoning here>." See, that would be an argument that supports your position.

    In fact, if I were in a discussion about this, I would probably argue that it's best, ceteris paribus, to leave copyfraud to more egregious and obvious cases, otherwise we risk diluting the word to an extent that could make people take allegations of copyfraud less seriously. Well, y'know, once it actually becomes used and taken seriously by more people than the well-read bunch that participates in discussion here. ;)

    But lying? I call BS on that. Mike clearly believes this is an extra imposition of rights beyond those allowed by law And, let's just recall that as he mentioned, the details were intentionally left vague, so there could be even more information that was omitted that justifies the position. And, regardless, it is most certainly [here's that word again] arguable, even without further details, that this does indeeed constitutes copyfraud.

    So, if you've got a beef with this being copyfraud, by all means... argue your position. But try to do it with premises and logic leading to a conclusion rather than ad hominem fallacies, a lack of (philosophical) charity, or anything resembling proper research on the topic which you are so quick to (anonymously) go on the attack over.

    kthxbai

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