Disappointing: DMCA Being Used To Make Feynman Lectures On Physics Less Accessible

from the too-bad dept

I'm going to assume that many of you are familiar with Richard Feynman. If you're not, please get out from under the rock you've been living under and go learn something. While he's probably most well-known in the public for his (not always 100% truthful) collection of stories, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, folks of a geekier persuasion are much more aware of his contributions to science and, in particular, the famed Feynman Lectures on Physics. It took way too many years to get those lectures online after (you guessed it) a fight over copyrights. However, online the lectures went and now it appears that publisher Perseus is unfortunately using the DMCA to block attempts to make the works accessible via Kindle or EPUB formats.

Eric Hellman posted the story at the link above, with this being the key part:
Vikram Verma, a software developer in Singapore, wanted to be able to read the lectures on his kindle. Although PDF versions can be purchased at $40 per volume, no versions are yet available in Kindle or EPUB formats. Since the digital format used by kindle is just a simplified version of html, the transformation of web pages to an ebook file is purely mechanical. So Verma proceeded to write a script to do the mechanical transformation – he accomplished the transformation in only 136 lines of ruby code, and published the script as a repository on Github.

Despite the fact that nothing remotely belonging to Perseus or Caltech had been published in Verma's repository, it seems that Perseus and/or Caltech was not happy that people could use Verma's code to easily make ebook files from the website. So they hauled out the favorite weapon of copyright trolls everywhere: a DMCA takedown.
You can see the DMCA here as well as the counternotice, which notes that the software doesn't contain any copyrighted materials (though there's some confusion over who owns the copyright, Caltech or Perseus). Hellman, while admitting he's not a lawyer, further suggests the DMCA takedown is invalid because it's just code... but then further notes that the Feynman Lectures website has put in some code to block the script -- and that Verma has coded around this:
In the meantime, the Feynman Lectures website has taken some steps to break Verma's script. For example, instead of a link to http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/II_28.html (my favorite chapter), the table of contents now has a link to javascript:Goto(2,18). This will take about 10 minutes for Verma to work around. In addition, the website now has a robot exclusion (except for Googlebot).
Of course, that introduces a new (and unfortunate) problem. As problematic as it is, the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA, 17 USC 1201 makes it against the law to get around any "technological measure" no matter how stupid or weak, and thus the effort by the website to block it may introduce a new problem, though likely different than what Perseus initially claimed in its takedown.

Making things even more convoluted, the editor of the Feynman Lectures, Michael Gottlieb, jumped into the fray and made things even more confusing and misleading:
The online edition of The Feynman Lectures Website posted at www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu and www.feynmanlectures.info is free-to-read online. However, it is under copyright. The copyright notice can be found on every page: it is in the footer that your script strips out! The online edition of FLP can not be downloaded, copied or transferred for any purpose (other than reading online) without the written consent of the copyright holders (The California Institute of Technology, Michael A. Gottlieb, and Rudolf Pfeiffer), or their licensees (Basic Books). Every one of you is violating my copyright by running the flp.mobi script. Furthermore Github is committing contributory infringement by hosting your activities on their website. A lot of hard work and money and time went into making the online edition of FLP. It is a gift to the world - one that I personally put a great deal of effort into, and I feel you are abusing it. We posted it to benefit the many bright young people around the world who previously had no access to FLP for economic or other reasons. It isn't there to provide a source of personal copies for a bunch of programmers who can easily afford to buy the books and ebooks!! Let me tell you something: Rudi Pfeiffer and I, who have worked on FLP as unpaid volunteers for about a decade, make no money from the sale of the printed books. We earn something only on the electronic editions (though, of course, not the HTML edition you are raping, to which we give anyone access for free!), and we are planning to make MOBI editions of FLP - we are working on one right now. By publishing the flp.mobi script you are essentially taking bread out of my mouth and Rudi's, a retired guy, and a schoolteacher. Proud of yourselves? That's all I have to say personally. Github has received DMCA takedown notices and if this script doesn't come down pretty soon they (and very possibly you) might be hearing from some lawyers. As of Monday, this matter is in the hands of Perseus's Domestic Rights Department and Caltech's Office of The General Counsel. 

Michael A. Gottlieb
Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics New Millennium Edition
www.feynmanlectures.info
www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu
This is icky on multiple levels. First of all, Gottlieb is engaging in slight copyfraud in overclaiming what his copyright enables him to block. Further it is not necessarily the case that anyone, let alone "everyone" is "violating [Gottlieb's] copyright" merely by running the script. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why running that script may be perfectly legitimate, and legal cases that have suggested place and time shifting content is a legal fair use would certainly come into play here. Furthermore, the argument that Github is somehow contributorily liable is highly questionable, and Gottlieb really ought to talk to a copyright lawyer before making such a leap.

But from there to shift into how important it is to make the work available to the world... just seems strange. If that's the case, why is he freaking out so much?

Either way, the whole situation seems unfortunate, but once again, that's what you get with our crazy copyright law and the DMCA takedown process.

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  1. identicon
    Shay, 7 Mar 2014 @ 10:39pm

    Re:

    There are many reasons we don't want people to publish the flp.mobi script (or others like it) on a public server, besides those mentioned in the 'issue' I posted on Github. There are issues of quality control: the online edition of FLP isn't finished yet -- it's still rough around the edges in some ways, and we're still working on it. For that matter we are still correcting errata in FLP, and we don't want inaccurate, incompatible copies of FLP to proliferate for pedagogical reasons. Moreover, we downloaded and ran the flp.mobi script and the epub it makes is, in our opinion, ugly. We wouldn't want this barely legible copy of FLP circulating any more than the horrid PDF scans of ancient editions that abound in torrents.

    So anyone who doesn't do things your way gets the law thrown at them?
    In my "issue" on Github I mentioned that we are currently working on ePub/Kindle versions. The reason it is taking us so long to complete them is because our standards are high: it's taking a lot of cleverness to figure out how to do it right.

    Best is the enemy of good enough.
    (It's only too bad the programmers who are contributing to flp.mobi did not come to us and ask our permission, because if they had, I would have worked with them. That is, in fact, exactly what has happened: A responsible adult, who happens to be a much more talented programmer than the authors of flp.mobi, wrote to me and asked permission if he could make an ePub from our HTML. I told him about the various attempts to make FLP ePubs, why they had failed thus far, and invited him to do better. And he has!! So now he is working with us. If we publish his work he'll, of course, be paid for it. That's what you get for asking :-).

    So because they didn't act like adults and ask you for permission, you threw the law at them? Sounds more like you want them to act like children with you being the authoritarian parent. Since you espouse being a responsible adult, why didn't you politely contact them and explain your desires for the conversion effort and see whether you all could work together, or whether it made more sense for you each to try your own approaches and see what end-users prefer?
    However, the issue that concerns me most is the possibility that Perseus or Caltech might take the free-to-read online edition of FLP offline if the legal expense of defending its copyright becomes excessive.

    That's an easy one: don't bring legal action against people writing the script. No legal costs. This isn't a trademark issue where one has to defend it or lose it.
    Perseus, who licenses exclusive reproduction and distribution rights on FLP, allow us to serve the free online edition only conditionally, if it doesn't hurt their sales revenues or cost them anything otherwise.

    But somehow if you make and release a free version for portable use it won't run into these problems?

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