Open Letter To Human Synergistics International In Response To Your Accusation That Techdirt Is Infringing

from the fair-use,-learn-it,-love-it dept

To Silvie van Etten:

Thank you for your letter on November 23rd, 2012, (which we have reposted below in its entirety, minus your contact info) in which you mistakenly suggest that Techdirt has infringed the copyrights of your company, Human Synergistics, via its post from October 5th, 2012, entitled Copyright As Censorship: Author Removes Blog Post After Being Threatened For Quoting 4 Sentences. First of all, it is astounding that you do not appear to recognize the irony of threatening us over a blog post that goes into detail as to why someone else's use of a tiny snippet of your company's work was quite clearly fair use under US copyright law. In fact, it leads one to wonder if you even read the post in question before sending your letter.

Even if we ignore the question of whether or not that original blog post by Patti O'Shea constituted fair use, I can assure you that Techdirt's use is fair use. Furthermore, your claim that a lack of permission to quote your silly exercise (solely for the purpose of explaining your overaggressive use of copyright law to censor people against your own best interests) is somehow "a direct violation of our copyright" is absolutely false. It is not just false, but an exaggeration of the rights you hold under copyright law -- a situation called "Copyfraud" by legal scholar Jason Mazzone.

While you appear to be in Germany, I note that Human Synergistics International is actually based in the US. We, too, are a US company, with US servers, targeting a mostly US audience. As such, the only copyright law that would reasonably apply is US copyright law, which has clear support for "fair use," especially when used in reporting and comment/criticism. According to your LinkedIn page, your law degree is from the somewhat infamous Thomas M. Cooley law school in the US, so you must be familiar with US copyright laws, and fair use in particular. While fair use laws are, at times, open to interpretation, there are few situations as obviously and clearly fair use as ours. As such, we reject your claim that we have violated your copyrights as well as your request to remove the quoted sections from our blog. When something is fair use it neither requires permission nor is it infringement, your suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding.

Our use is fair use and not infringing. While courts are free to use their discretion in determining what constitutes fair use in the US, it is common to focus mainly on the four factors prescribed in copyright law. Looking over those four factors, our use is without a doubt fair use.

The first factor is the "purpose and character of the use." Section 107 of the Copyright Act notes that fair use is explicitly "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting." Our use of your text was, in fact, for all three. We criticized your ridiculous abuse of copyright law to attempt to censor a website discussing your exercise. We further commented on the matter, using the text in particular to show why your original claim of copyright infringement (leaving aside this latest attempt to double down) would likely fail on fair use grounds. Finally, we clearly used the text in the course of news reporting, as we were reporting on your excessive behavior, which we believed (and still believe) was a newsworthy event.

Furthermore, courts will often look at whether or not the use is "in the public interest" (see Online Policy Group v. Diebold). Once again, this supports fair use, as it is clear that a company that chooses to abuse copyright law to silence public speech needs to be exposed publicly, so that others who may choose to do business with such a company know the sort of operation they are dealing with. Given that it was in the public interest to expose your actions, we again stand by our assertion that our use was fair. In addition, considering we were providing commentary on the over-aggressive nature of your initial takedown, there is no other way to accurately explain your abuse of copyright law without also sharing the brief snippet of text. This, too, supports the fair use argument.

Courts also explore whether or not the use is "transformative," (see: Cambell v. Acuff-Rose). Once again, the answer is a resounding yes. At no point were we seeking to use your content to have a bunch people sit around and actually take part in the exercise, but rather to specifically demonstrate your company's misuse of copyright law -- a purpose that is transformatively different from the purpose you appear to envision for the text.

The second fair use factor is "the nature of the copyrighted works." Again, this prong supports our claim that the use is fair and not infringing. Our original post talked about how your company appears to abuse the purpose and the letter of copyright law to threaten and bully anyone who quotes a very tiny portion of a common "group training" exercise, involving stranded travelers and a small list of items which need to be prioritized for travel and survival. As we noted in our original post, there are a variety of similar exercises, all based on the same premise. That, alone, suggests that the short description of the exercise -- consisting of 4 sentences and 64 words -- has, at most, only weak copyright protection on the few new creative elements. Furthermore, the "list" of items is, not unlike a "recipe," merely a list of facts and, for the most part, not copyrightable under US law. Finally, part of the text that you ask us to delete is, in fact, something that we wrote, "she then lists out the items," rather than something from the text you claim copyright over.

The third factor is "the amount and substantiality of the portion used." Here, again, it supports that our use -- the tiny segment of the exercise that was quoted in our blog post -- is fair. As anyone who has done one of these exercises knows full well, the point of the exercise is not the 4 sentence description, nor the list of items, but the actual group prioritization effort, combined with the "expert" prioritization that is often revealed at the end of the exercise in addition to various explanations of what the exercise means / what participants should have learned. Since the amount that we copied was such a tiny part of the larger exercise, and a minor part of it, at that, this again weighs in favor of fair use. Furthermore, even if you were to argue that we somehow did use a substantial portion, your argument would fail. As the Supreme Court makes clear in Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters, "substantial quotations might qualify as a fair use in a review of a published work or a news account." Our use clearly was a news account.

Finally, the last factor is "the effect of your use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work." It's important to note here, (again referencing back to the Campbell case) that the courts are clear here that they are not addressing whether or not the criticism harms the market, but whether or not the direct use harms the market. We freely admit that our criticism of your despicable copyright practices may lead organizations to think twice about doing business with your company. But, as the Supreme Court noted, while "a scathing theater review kills demand for the original, it does not produce a harm cognizable under the Copyright Act." In our case, the specific use of the text clearly does not harm the potential for your market, because we were not using it in a competitive manner at all. No one would read our post and use that to administer the exercise in question.

It's that last point that is the most bizarre in all of this. The original blog post, by Patti O'Shea, which we were commenting upon, said nothing negative about your organization or the exercise, which she seemed to enjoy. Most reasonable persons would actually have read it as an endorsement of the exercise itself, which would reflect well on you and could lead more people to wish to hire your organization or license the specific exercise details. Thus, the end result of your bizarre copyright extremism is that you caused a blog post that would likely drive more business for you to be disappeared from the internet. In response, you received criticism from us. And, rather than change your ways, you have now dug yourself an even bigger hole by threatening us with what appears to be a clearly bogus threat. So you have gone from one mostly positive blog post to an increasing series of negative blog posts criticizing your activities.

It is unclear how that series of responses from you furthers Human Synergistics' business interests, which must be a part of your job.

Finally, you should make yourself aware of the Lenz v. Universal case, in which the courts have noted that copyright holders have an obligation to take fair use into account prior to issuing a takedown notice under copyright law. While your initial notice is deficient in meeting the qualifications of a DMCA Section 512 takedown notice under copyright law, if you seek to send a complying takedown notice, understanding the implications of Lenz v. Universal would probably be wise.

While I hope that this response, posted publicly on our site and sent to you directly, constitutes the end of this discussion, I have had this letter reviewed by multiple lawyers who are experts in copyright, fair use and free speech. If you wish to continue this fruitless effort, I will be happy to put you in touch directly with lawyers who will be representing us in having a court disabuse you of your misunderstanding of copyright law.


Michael Masnick
CEO and Editor
Floor64 Inc. and Techdirt

To Whom It May Concern:

It has come to our attention that you are displaying substantial text from the Desert Survival Situation™ on your website at: and 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 your organization permission to reproduce this exercise in any format. Therefore, this action constitutes a direct violation of our copyright.

We respectfully request that you immediately remove the following sections: 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. - from your website and discontinue any further unauthorized use, whether in electronic or hard copy form, of Human Synergistics' materials.
Human Synergistics offers a wide range of simulations, diagnostic surveys, and support materials for organizational training and development. Feel free to contact us for additional information or to purchase any of these materials.
This letter is written without prejudice to any of Human Synergistics’ rights, all of which are expressly reserved. Please acknowledge receipt of this letter via email within five (5) business days.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Silvie van Etten, J.D.

Untere Steinhauser Str. 1
Ratingen, 40882

Filed Under: copyright, desert survival scenario, expression, fair use
Companies: human synergistics international

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    Max Deveault (profile), 29 Nov 2012 @ 11:17am

    Team Building Exercise And Copyright - Plagiarism?

    I mean seriously. A quote where a source is cited can't be plagiarism.

    I wonder if Human Synergistics asks participants to this team building exercise to sign a waiver of non divulgation.

    Heck, Trade Marked? Let's see what we can come up with ..

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