Friday, October 23, 2009

Corporate bullying on the net must be resisted; Guardian, 10/20/09

Cory Doctorow, Guardian; Corporate bullying on the net must be resisted:

The entertainment industry's plans to attack copyright violators is plain embarrassing – and ignorant of real-world implications

"Back in September, my Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin blogged a photo of a Japanese Ralph Lauren store display featuring model Filippa Hamilton with her proportions digitally altered so that "her pelvis was bigger than her head." Xeni posted the image as a brief and pithy comment on the unrealistic body image conveyed by couture advertising – in other words, she posted it as commentary, and thus fell into one of the copyright exemptions that Americans call "fair use" and others call "fair dealing".

Ralph Lauren – as with many corporate giants – would prefer not to be criticised in public, so his lawyers sent our internet service provider (the Canadian company Priority CoLo) a legal threat, averring that our use was a violation of copyright law and demanding that Priority CoLo remove our post forthwith.

The story has a happy ending: Priority CoLo is a wonderful ISP and don't take these legal notices at face value. Instead, they talk them over with us, and since we all agreed that Lauren's legal analysis didn't pass the giggle test, we decided to respond by posting the notice and making fun of Lauren's insecurity and legal bullying. The story resonated with the public – who are tired of legal bullying from the corporate world – and was picked up by major news outlets around the world. Lauren apologised for his photoshoppery (but not for the spurious legal threat – and the model was fired for not being skeletal enough to appear in Lauren's campaigns). Lauren learned a thing or two about the Streisand Effect, wherein an attempt to suppress information makes the information spread more widely...

So, the notice-and-takedown system – a feature of copyright law the world round, thanks to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties that require it – has become an easily abused, cheap, and virtually risk-free way of effecting mass censorship on the flimsiest pretence. Everyone from the Church of Scientology to major fashion companies avail themselves of this convenient system for making critics vanish.

Of course, we predicted this outcome in 1995, when the treaties were being negotiated. A system that removes checks and balances, that requires no proof before action, that replaces judges and laws with a deepest-pockets-always-wins "begs" to be abused. As Anton Chekhov wrote: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." Leaving naked power without consequence lying around where anyone can find it and use it is an invitation to an abuse of that power.

It's been 13 years since the WIPO treaties passed in 1996, and we have an abundance of evidence to support Chekhov, and yet we continue to repeat the notice-and-takedown mistake. Today, the entertainment industry is bent on establishing a "three strikes" system, with the enthusiastic support of Peter Mandelson, whereby someone who is accused of three copyright violations would lose his internet connection (as would all the household members who shared that connection). Even if we accept the entertainment industry's assurances that "they" would never abuse this power (admittedly, you'd have to be a fool to believe this), what about "everyone else"? What about the Ralph Laurens of this world, or the mad-dog racists who'd love to have their critics vanish from the debate, or the school bullies who want to add new torments to their victims' lives?"

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