VidAngel: A Litany of Copyright Defenses

Photo by rootstocks

VidAngel offers what is functionally a video-on-demand (VOD) service plus “filtering” for viewers who want to see mainstream fare with certain naughty bits—sex, foul language, violence, etc.—removed. To provide this service, though, VidAngel allegedly violates the copyright owners’ exclusive right of reproduction and public performance, as well as Section 1201 of the DMCA prohibiting circumvention of technical protection measures (TPM) used to encrypt DVDs.

Movie studios Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilms, and Warner Bros. sued VidAngel, and in December 2016, the District Court for the Central District of California issued an injunction, halting the defendant’s operations. The judge’s opinions in the order state that all arguments favor the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits.  VidAngel has appealed the injunction to the 9th Circuit where briefs were filed last week.

The Family Home Movie Act (2005)

As a frame of reference, if a consumer owns a feature film on DVD, a statute called the Family Home Movie Act (FMA), allows the use of technological means (e.g. a product called ClearPlay) to make limited portions of his disk “imperceptible” while playing it in a private viewing situation.  Designed for audiences who want to “filter” out scenes containing the aforementioned naughty bits, the FMA affords the viewer a limited right to use technology to achieve this “filtering” without infringing copyright.  (As a no-tech option, there is of course no limit to the amount a viewer may close his eyes, plug his ears, and sing La-La-La during those portions of a movie he finds offensive.)

We can debate whether or not “filtering” motion pictures is truly a right, but there is apparently enough of a market that wants to “filter” that the subject has at least been an issue.  For instance, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) was opposed to filtering technology like ClearPlay, claiming that editing the films violates the right of the author to disseminate a work as he sees fit, which is certainly true. So, the FMA was enacted as a legal compromise, written very narrowly to provide the home viewer with the ability to “make imperceptible” limited portions of legally-acquired DVDs.

Enter VidAngel

The CEO of VidAngel, Neal Harmon, reportedly grew up in a household where, for religious reasons, he was not allowed to watch a number of mainstream movies.  Remembering what it felt like to be culturally out of the loop, Harmon founded VidAngel in Utah in 2013—it is now headquartered in Silicon Valley—as a way to provide families in similar circumstances with a solution.  According to testimony, VidAngel approached the studios with their model; and the studios were not interested. There are any number of reasons why a film producer will be opposed to enterprise-scale “filtering” by a third party, and the studios were certainly under no obligation to engage in that endeavor.

Deciding to forge ahead, VidAngel developed a convoluted workflow and business model based on a bold legal assumption that the FMA allows the company to provide an unlicensed video-on-demand and “filtering” service while avoiding liability for infringement. The overly-complex model looks a lot like what it is:  an attorney’s Rube Goldberg attempt to circumvent copyright law. And although VidAngel wants to make this a story about the right of consumers to “filter,” launching the hashtag campaign #savefiltering, that debate has little bearing on the infringing nature of the VidAngel enterprise.

VidAngel’s Model/Workflow

VidAngel buys feature film DVDs, which they decrypt, digitize, organize, and store as “segments” that are tagged to facilitate “filtering” by pre-selected criteria (e.g. blasphemy). A customer uses the VidAngel app—available on Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, etc.—to select among the criteria and create his “filtering” preferences.  Next, the customer “buys” a DVD from VidAngel’s inventory for $20—let’s say 1988’s Working Girl. But having filtered for nudity, he does not want to see Melanie Griffith vacuuming topless. (There’s a cleanliness next to godliness joke in there, but I’ll let it go.)

Most of the time, the customer doesn’t choose to receive the DVD he “bought”—it does still have the unwanted scenes, after all—but instead, he streams Working Girl, sans topless vacuuming scene, and then “sells” the DVD back to VidAngel for a refund minus $1/day for a standard-def stream ($2/day for high def). Note, the DVD never changed hands; VidAngel “held the DVD” for customer during the “buy-sellback” interval.

According to VidAngel’s testimony, 80% of the disks are “sold back,” so if this sounds like an absurdly complicated way to operate what is primarily a VOD service, that’s because it is overly complicated—and quite on purpose. Because what VidAngel is counting on is that during the brief period when the customer “owns” the DVD, that customer may then legally “direct” VidAngel to perform the same function he would otherwise be allowed to perform at home under the FMA.  That’s their theory anyway.

The fact that VidAngel markets its service as providing streaming for “as low as $1” belies its claim as a “reseller” of disks; and the fact that 80% of its customers “sell back” the DVDs seems  more than sufficient evidence to reasonably describe the core business as video-on-demand. But even if a court might agree that a VidAngel customer is temporarily the “owner” of the DVD, this should have no bearing in assessing VidAngel’s infringing activities; and their own workflow makes this clear.

VidAngel Infringes Before a Customer Exists

In order to prepare files for “filtered” viewing, the company has to decrypt a DVD and then make and store copies of entire films on its servers (i.e. in fixed form). For practical reasons, the company must perform these two infringing activities prior to any customer “buying” any disks. There is simply no other way to organize the workflow and provide the service they offer. Because the infringement against the owners’ right of reproduction, and violation of the DMCA, occurs before a customer becomes part of the workflow, VidAngel’s claim that it is shielded by the FMA on the grounds that they “filter” at the direction of a DVD owner is simply impossible. The only owner of the DVD at the time when decryption and copying are performed is VidAngel. Moreover, VidAngel has predetermined a set of criteria for “filtering,” and no matter how many possible permutations of a given film this may produce, the company has still acted to create a finite set of  “filters” it makes available to a prospective DVD owner rather than its claim to “filter” at the direction of an actual DVD owner.

Next, when VidAngel streams a movie, this constitutes a public performance in violation of another exclusive right protected by copyright.  Again, VidAngel puts its faith in the FMA, arguing that because they only stream a “filtered” version of a movie to the customer during the period when the customer “owns” the DVD, they are not publicly performing any more than if the customer himself were to engage in the same function at home using a legal “filtering” technology as permitted by the FMA.

Here, VidAngel appeals to the “spirit” of the FMA and not the statute, implying that Congress believed generally in the principle of “filtering” when it wrote the law. Whether this is true of Congress or not, VidAngel is asking the court for an extremely broad (dare I say, leap of faith?) interpretation of narrowly written legislation that does not allow a party doing the “filtering” to publicly perform a film beyond the confines of ordinary private viewing.   The FMA simply does not anticipate a model anything like VidAngel, which is exactly why the company is straining to create its own loophole in the law with its over-complicated pretense of “selling and buying back” DVDs.

VidAngel Claims Fair Use

Finally, VidAngel appeals to fair use doctrine, claiming that the “filtered” versions are “transformative” under the first prong, that the service is not a substitute under the third prong, and that the service does not create potential market harm under the fourth prong.  I suspect the appellate court will agree with the district court, which found that the fair use test favored the plaintiffs across the board; but it was the judge’s response to VidAngel’s fair use claim under the fourth prong that I find particularly revealing about the rationales being applied in VidAngel’s defense.  The court states:

VidAngel attempts to support their arguments by offering customer survey results that indicate that over 51% of VidAngel customers would not watch their offerings without filtering. The survey results are ultimately detrimental to VidAngels arguments. The fact that 49% of VidAngels customers would view movies without filters shows that VidAngels service does serve as an effective substitute for Plaintiffs unfiltered works, for approximately half of VidAngels users.

Not that attorneys for VidAngel aren’t on the ball, but they actually presented evidence to indicate that nearly half of VidAngel’s customers may be poached from the potential customer base of the rightful owners of the works.  That certainly seems like a good way to fail on the fourth prong of the fair use test, but the self-defeating oddness of this argument is consistent with the major theme running through this entire case:  that the overly-complex design of the VidAngel model reveals a strenuous, ham-handed, effort to thread the enterprise through the legal boundaries of copyright.  It is little surprise that the lower court found all of VidAngel’s arguments untenable, and it is hard to imagine that the appeals court will not sustain the injunction.

A Moral Enterprise?

Advertised in their promo video as “Movie Heaven,” VidAngel presumably targets a market with sincerely held religious beliefs, even though the first laws they seem to have overlooked are Commandments #8 & 10: Thou shalt not steal, and Thou shalt not covet, respectively.  For all the assumed piety in VidAngel’s “filtering” crusade, the company clearly feels no sense of moral conflict about its for-profit, unlicensed exploitation of the thousands of people whose labor makes the movies. In fact, it is notable that among the content a VidAngel subscriber may have “filtered” from viewing is the end credits listing the names of all those workers.  I’ll leave the moral rationalization of that to the operators of VidAngel themselves, but as far as the copyright implications go, it seems like they don’t know what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks they’re doing.


Posted in Copyright, Digital Culture | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Disruption achieved.  What now?

Photo by michaklootwijk

Returning to the generalization that the internet is the “best thing ever to happen to democracy,” I have to ask this:  if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, how do we like the soufflé so far?  Admittedly, the unprecedented scope of the Women’s March on January 21 would not have been possible without social media; but at the same time, I very much doubt that a candidate in the style of Donald Trump could have become president without social media, so I guess we’re going to have to live with that dichotomy.

Setting aside Trump’s policy agenda—to the extent that it is coherent—what I believe he represents above all was a vote of no confidence in the American system itself.  And to be honest, I believe Bernie Sanders’s campaign represented this for many people as well –albeit in a very different manner.  But what these two radically divergent, populists had in common was a message that the middle class is getting hammered because the system has failed.  It’s why the Sanders-to-Trump voter is not the contradiction it might seem; but I do find it at least worth pondering that the election of 2016 was very much A Tale of Two Angry Old Men.  Not that I discount Hillary Clinton by any means, but it seems as though the venn diagram that combines many swing votes in the electorate who would never vote for Hillary with those who reluctantly voted for Hillary shared that common complaint that the establishment itself is the problem.

And now that we’re watching Trump’s approach to “shaking up Washington” play out in an exhausting whirlwind of political heterodoxy, I can’t help but think about that youthful and ebullient mantra of Silicon Valley that preaches Disrupt Everything. Citizens across the political spectrum, fed up with the status quo on a wide range of social, political, and economic issues, either actively or passively endorsed this disrupt zeitgeist. Remember the old Facebook motto Move fast and break things that was echoed by the VCs and creators of tech startups?  Could that not also serve as the headline for Trump’s first weeks in the White House?

The cacophony of political theater and real policy proposals of the new administration has certainly been breathtaking, but it is also familiar territory to those of us who spend time scrutinizing the PR and policy aims of the internet industry. The disestablishment playbook of Bannon seems to share, one might say, substantial similarity with the disestablishment playbook of Google when that company opposes legal regimes like copyright law, privacy restrictions, anti-trust regulation, or even the notion of statehood itself.

Like the sledgehammer Trump wants to take to all regulation in order to supposedly “get business flowing again,” Google & Friends have repeated almost the same message to sell the idea that legal regimes like copyright are anachronisms standing in the way of innovation. The sleight of hand works well because the goal is vague.  That word innovation is no more clearly defined than the word great in Trump’s campaign slogan. But the spirit of disruption insists that we not discuss the nagging details about where we might be headed. It says that we must simply break things right away and have faith that benefits are sure to follow.

And I do literally mean faith.  Because an enthusiasm for mass disruption seems to come from a deep well of magical thinking. Whether this means an overtly theocratic agenda a la Bannon or an overtly technocratic one a la Google, both visions seem to share this one underlying message:  that many foundations of the American Republic (i.e. all things mainstream) are standing in the way of a bright future. It feels as though we are locking in a dismal choice between the catastrophe of a new, theocratic global order or the uncertainty of a quasi-democratic, technological, “leisure” society. Or perhaps some bizarre, dystopian version of the two.  Meanwhile, the AI technologists continue their race to bring about the singularity with the same determinist zeal that Steve Bannon exhibits about the prospect of a war with China. Are we truly that eager for self-annihilation? Again?  No wonder a reported 50% of these same technologists have invested millions on their survivalist backup plans.

Blind faith in information technology to preserve democratic principles is just that:  blind.  As I suggested in an older post, because social media has divvied us up according to our brand of outrage, it is helping to hollow out the political center, leaving a vacuum for autocrats (or technocrats?) to fill. It was just a few of years ago, when the Snowden story broke, and everyone became all leak-happy, that I criticized my progressive friends for looking in every direction for conspiracies and for putting too much faith in the illusion of transparency afforded by digital technologies.

We forget at our peril how fragile the American deal really is—that it’s nothing more than an idea we mutually agree not to destroy, no matter how much we disagree on specific issues.  As I wrote in response to this 360-degree conspiracy view, if we completely lose faith in all functions of government, it means we’ve lost faith in each other, which is the beginning of the end.  Michael Idov, writing for New York Magazine, provides a glimpse into his experiences living and working in Russia as a cautionary tale about what happens when that very fragile agreement does not exist—when trust itself is obliterated. In a description that reminds me of at least cybernetic America over the last several years, Idov writes:

“Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge. This cynicism, coupled with endless conspiracy theories about everything, was at its core defensive (it’s hard to be disappointed if you expect the worst). But it amounted to defeatism.”

And that’s the underlying message being delivered 140 characters at a time from the Oval Office today—that not one institution can be trusted over the word of a single individual. It is a defeatist and dangerous message, but not one that was written by Donald Trump so much as it was exploited by him. We wrote the narrative ourselves. Feeling let down by the system, we went looking for saviors instead of leaders.

The detrimental effect of social media, feeding the illusion that this technology fosters real transparency, cannot be overstated.  The very significant phenomenon that some citizens sincerely believe that a presidential tweet is more honest and informative than the investigative work of a veteran journalist may seem mind-boggling, but it was an inevitable result of disrupting everything. And it is certainly not only Trump’s supporters who’ve bought into this idea that we can all be our own news sources now because the “mainstream” cannot be trusted. To the contrary, every day I see some friend on Facebook shake a head at the White House calling a verifiable fact “fake news,” but in the next instant, share some misleading headline from a questionable source.

We usually talk about the United States in terms of strength and rarely in terms of its fragility.  If that sounds “weak” to some, a reading of the Framers’ own words will show that they understood exactly how fragile the Republic is—that the moment it ceases to be a statesman’s debate about common purpose, we’re toast.  But honest debate cannot occur when we have to spend so much time disputing or proving the facts themselves.  Twenty years ago, we argued about what to do next, but not nearly so much about what had already happened.

As a general analysis, it is extremely hard to believe that we were not better off with a little less “information” and a little less “transparency.”  Because there is simply no denying the evidence that millions of us—right, left, and center—are operating with our own sets of facts and “alternative facts.” At the same time, it is also questionable whether or not any bi-partisan cooperation could ever happen under the gaze of constant public scrutiny.

It’s a little late now, of course. With the Executive adopting an authoritarian tone, and a party-line vote like we saw in the confirmation of a patently unqualified Secretary of Education, we’ve clearly crossed some threshold in the realm of sincere debate that is neither liberal nor conservative.  But this is what comes from an underlying loss of faith in the system itself and the chaos of the tech-enabled “direct democracy” that is, in many ways, an antidote to corruption but which is also highly vulnerable to corruption itself.

So, mission accomplished. We’re disrupted. “Big League.”  What’s next?

Posted in Digital Culture, Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Defending Copyright in the Context of Trump

photo by DevonYu

Well, here we go.  I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop, and it looks like Josh Tabish, campaigns director for Vancouver-based OpenMedia, has decided to be among the first to throw a loafer. In an editorial for Wired, he warns that “the copyright barons” are coming now that Trump is in the White House.

It has a been a challenge, to say the least, to try to disabuse people of the notion that contemporary copyright enforcement really can coexist with a free and open internet and not stifle free speech. And that was while Obama was president—a left-of-center moderate who was very close with Google. But ever since Trump won, I’ve been waiting for the same anti-copyright narrative to dial the volume up to eleven because now we have a ballgame.  Stand by for a litany of articles and blogs under the theme:  See! All it takes is a draconian, right-wing president, and the copyright industry will get what they want and destroy the freedom-loving internet!!!!

So, let’s clarify one thing, in case it hasn’t been obvious so far.  I neither like nor trust Donald Trump. I think he’s probably unhinged and that his agenda, opaque as it seems, may well pose a legitimate threat to the foundations of the United States.  And certainly, there are bigger issues to worry about at the moment than copyright law. In fact, this is always true, which is one reason the IP Subcommittee of the House Judiciary used to be a legislative backwater gig that nobody really noticed. But now that internet giants have convinced millions of people around the world that copyright enforcement in cyberspace is tantamount to stifling everyone’s speech, copyright remains in the foreground of digital-age issues and, by association, it will be swept up in the broader narrative of whether or not the Republic itself is going to withstand the new administration’s brand of heterodoxy.

In response to a letter by The Copyright Alliance asking the president to support copyright law, Tabish cobbled together the standard narrative that a) copyright law is already too strong; and b) making it any stronger can only result in some form of censorship online.  He trots out all the usual talking-points, including favorite hits like DMCA takedown is chronically abusive, no enforcement regime can mitigate piracy anyway, and beware the hidden IP agenda of trade deals.  None of these assertions is sound—I’ve written extensively on all of them—and certainly none can be understood from a sentence or two in a short article.  But I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more of this “beware copyright” message now that the age of Trump is upon us.  And I could not disagree with this premise more. Perhaps now more than ever.

Protecting Individual Rights

One of the reasons I defend copyright is that it is an individual right.  IP is in fact the very first mention of an individual right in the Constitution, and copyright was among the few rights an American could exercise, even before he/she had other rights.  Frederick Douglass registered his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in a Massachusetts Federal Court in 1845.  At a time when he and his fellow Africans were literally considered property by half the country—and were none too welcome by the other half—Douglass could legally declare the work of his own genius as his property.

I happen to think that’s significant and believe people should recognize its significance.  Today, the empowerment of copyright is almost certainly a core component in the career of your favorite activist, author, artist, or journalist. Or to put it another way, if you watched the inauguration concert, that’s a pretty good glimpse of what art looks like in certain countries without copyright laws. Kinda meh, right?

Copyright Is Non-Partisan

To be frank, most governance is non-partisan, and it’s unfortunate that the theater of mass media has aggravated our capacity to politicize even relatively neutral policy.  But that’s another discussion.  Copyright law is grounded in the earliest principles of the new nation, it has been wildly successful on balance, and it empowers some of our favorite products. There’s a reason copyright historically enjoys strong bi-partisan support and stands apart from other, far more contentious issues.  If nothing else, amid the chaos and angst we’re now enduring on so many policy matters, copyright is actually kind of a nice legislative oasis where Republicans and Democrats can and should be friends.

Realistic Proposals to Amend Copyright Law are Not “Maximalist”

Despite the chronic repetition of the pejorative maximalist, and the declaration that rights holders are so eager to enforce copyright online that they’re willing to censor the web, this simply does not square with any of the real policy being discussed. Most of it is rather nuanced, and although some of the changes could cost Google or Facebook some of their not-so-hard-earned cash, it’s a stretch to imply that any of it can really affect the day-to-day use of the internet by most of us—least of all any discussion or sharing of substantive material that can arguably implicate the First Amendment. Naturally, these details and developments will be the subject of future posts.

Focus on the Real Concerns

Ultimately, if the real worry is about the correspondence of the internet and civil rights, remember that the creative copyright owners—least of all the independent artists out there getting clobbered—don’t own big web platforms. If you have real concerns about online censorship in the age of Trump, don’t follow the publishers, record labels, and movie studios, follow the evolving relationship between the administration and the owners of the web platforms. I’m not accusing those ISPs of anything here, but that just seems like common sense, no?

The simple reality is that every industry, regardless of internal political views, has to figure out how to work with the administration and the Congress we have.  That includes the institutions represented by The Copyright Alliance, and it includes those represented by the Internet Association. The Copyright Alliance letter is a lot like all the other representatives who sent missives to the new administration from every industry in the country. It’s SOP and largely symbolic.

Politically motivated communicators like Tabish should recognize that his empowerment  is not sustained by “free” internet conduits alone.  That empowerment is financial and requires investment by organizations like Wired where his OpEd was published. These entities depend on copyright law to protect their investments, and this is no time for any professional author of anything to be shooting himself in the foot.  Expect this rhetoric to get louder in the coming months and years, but that won’t make it more true.

Posted in Copyright, Law & Policy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Billionaires in Bunkers—The Luxury Apocalypse

Photo by CarlosYudica

Remember that theme “make the world better” that’s been pitched, promoted, and even believed by many a Silicon Valley innovator?  Well, according to Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, a considerable number of tech-industry billionaires, rather than ask themselves what they might do as leaders to effect positive social change, are instead preparing for the day we all decide to kill them.

Doomsday planners, referred to as “preppers,” are described in Osnos’s in-depth article covering the history, psychology, and various styles of backup plans pursued by the very wealthy. It is certainly not just internet-industry tycoons who’ve invested in post-apocalyptic, luxury lifeboats; but I was particularly struck by the rationale of those who imagine that mass unemployment through automation could bring about a violent revolution.  “The fears vary,” writes Osnos, “but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth.”

Among the on-the-record subjects Osnos interviewed was LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who estimates that more than fifty percent of Silicon Valley’s billionaires have invested in some form of escape route. Examples cited include property in New Zealand with an emergency flight plan via private plane; a private island off the US coast; or a three-million dollar luxury bunker apartment at the Survival Condo Project, built inside a disused nuclear missile silo in Kansas and guarded by heavily-armed mercenaries.

Personally, when I think about various doomsday scenarios, the first question I ask is whether or not I’d even want to survive, and most of the time the answer is No.  I mean I wouldn’t even want to live at a time in human history prior to the invention of the flush toilet, so I don’t maintain active fantasies of slugging it out in a medieval, Mad Max-like world. These are fun thought exercises or the premises of some good fiction writing, but I think it’s adorable that the wealthy “prepper” imagines not only surviving the collapse of civilization but goes so far as to expect a rather comfortable survival at that.

The investment in these plans reveal the kind of arrogance that assumes that in a collapsed civilization, these folks would still maintain their status at the top of the food chain.  For instance, I’m not surprised that a private security team is happy to be paid today to guard that bunker; but on the other side of the cataclysmic threshold, where money might become meaningless, those same trained killers may decide the bunker is theirs and that the former billionaires can work for them.

Surviving a doomsday scenario naturally depends on the causes and the extent of collapse, but it seems to me that most of the possible histories present a world not worth surviving.  Even the description of Osnos’s tour of the Survival Condo Project with its founder Larry Hall sounds doomed to me:

The complex is a tall cylinder that resembles a corncob. Some levels are dedicated to private apartments and others offer shared amenities: a seventy-five-foot-long pool, a rock-climbing wall, an Astro-Turf “pet park,” a classroom with a line of Mac desktops, a gym, a movie theatre, and a library. It felt compact but not claustrophobic. We visited an armory packed with guns and ammo in case of an attack by non-members, and then a bare-walled room with a toilet. “We can lock people up and give them an adult time-out,” he said. In general, the rules are set by a condo association, which can vote to amend them. During a crisis, a “life-or-death situation,” Hall said, each adult would be required to work for four hours a day, and would not be allowed to leave without permission. “There’s controlled access in and out, and it’s governed by the board,” he said.

I’m not sure which is my favorite implied folly—the classroom full of  Macs for a world that might be devoid of electricity and almost certainly will no longer have a working internet; or Hall’s projection of internal governance and justice maintained by the condo board of the apocalypse.  Often, such scenarios end in cannibalism, so I’d rather be taken out with the first strike, thank you.

Alternatively, Osnos writes that the growth industry in supplying the survivalist imaginations of “preppers” also brings out high-profile critics, like PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, who considers his colleagues’ pricey lifeboats a “moral miscalculation”, and whom Osnos quotes thus:  “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.”

The best way to survive—indeed probably the only way to survive—the end of civilization is to invest in civilization itself and to hedge against collapse.  For all the many millions these people are wasting on exit strategies that would likely end in their grizzly deaths anyway, they could put this wealth and their intelligence to better use.

For instance, Van Jones, on CNN last night, hosted a discussion with a group of West Virginia coal miners. They are representative of a large segment of the American population left behind by globalization and generally ignored by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.  Their votes for Donald Trump, in an economic context, sound like a Hail Mary play—a roll of the dice that a man who seems to be an outlier will shake up the system enough to restore some political clout to the “rust belt” and provide them with economic opportunity that has been in decline for decades.

I assume that many of these “prepper” billionaires—be they tech wizards of Silicon Valley or capitalists of New York—are skeptical that Trump’s approach to restoring opportunities for these American workers is in any way realistic. Certainly they imply as much with some of their fears as to how social collapse might occur.  As such, perhaps their survivalist dollars and imaginations would be more wisely, to say nothing of more morally, invested in helping to develop solutions to some of the problems their own industries have created.  For instance, if there is truly no avoiding the march of automation toward the unemployment of tens of millions of people, these folks might want to devote their resources to meeting that challenge.  Because nobody can stockpile that much ammo.

CORRECTION:  First publication of this post inadvertently stated that Van Jones visited miners in Pennsylvania.

Posted in Culture, Economics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

12 Things You Could Still Do If SOPA Had Passed

photo by tomasmikula

Because today is the five-year anniversary of “Blackout Day,” the day millions of users were suckered into doing the internet industry’s bidding for no good reason, the always-relevant BuzzFeed offers us a missive published by the organization ReCreate Coalition called “12 Things You Can Do Because Congress Protected Internet Freedoms,” by which they mean backed off the passage of SOPA/PIPA on January 18, 2012.

But there’s something magical about the twelve things listed; it’s kind of like a palindrome in that it is also a list of things you would still be able to do if SOPA/PIPA had passed. Let’s not equivocate on this matter.  I mean not one of the activities mentioned was in any way threatened by SOPA/PIPA.  And you know how we know this? Because those bills didn’t expand rights or restrict exceptions like fair use under the copyright law. If you engage in any or all of the listed activities and actually infringe a copyright, you’re just as potentially liable right now as you would be if those bills had passed. For reasons known perhaps only to the folks at ReCreate, they chose the following:

1. Share puppy videos instantly to Facebook.

2. Post a breaking news clip on Twitter.

3. Review a new restaurant on Yelp.

4. Comment on an article at a news outlet like Deadspin.

5. Use Wikipedia for that history paper on Alexander Hamilton…

6. Post a funny meme to Reddit.

7. Save a healthy recipe on Pintrest…

8. Repost a motivational quote on Instagram.

9. View and share family photos on Flickr.

10. Write a political opinion blog on WordPress.

11. Post a manequin challenge on YouTube.

12. Listen to a podcast on SoundCloud.

None of these actions inherently requires the use of copyrighted works. Some are actually hard to fathom how such a use is even implied. For instance, it’s pretty tough to share your own family photos and infringe a copyright, which suggests the ReCreate folks really put their A-Team on this little project.  But, don’t kid yourself.  If your political opinion blog includes the publication of a copyrighted photograph used without permission, you’re exactly as liable right now as you were before anyone even heard of the acronym SOPA.  Those bills were aimed at foreign-based, enterprise-scale pirate site operators and required substantial, costly evidence to enforce. It would not have been legally possible for rights holders, under SOPA, to give any more of a damn about private videos and restaurant reviews than they do right now.

The remedies provided by SOPA/PIPA were based on existing practices already used by courts when providing injunctive relief—all of which have been applied in various cases, and all without destroying the internet, the First Amendment, or your ability to “share puppy videos instantly on Facebook.”  Since 2012, sites have been shut down, URLs delisted, and credit card services denied to various types of bad actors; and yet the web keeps humming along in all its mannequin-challenging, motivational-quoting, and funny-meme-making glory.  The anti-SOPA campaign was one of the most effective fake news stories of all time, and celebrating the anniversary of being fooled is well…you finish the thought.

I assumed the buzz in BuzzFeed referred to current events, but perhaps it’s a literal reference indicating that any party, no matter how stoned they are, is free to publish any nonsense they cobble together via their platform. So, I guess we should add a thirteenth item to the list that would also, sadly, still be kosher in a world with SOPA & PIPA:

13.  Click-bait bullshit could still pretend to be information.


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