US Government copyright enforcement has gotten out of control


I'm still trying to figure out when the United States Justice Department became the legal enforcement arm of big media, but it's clear that it has happened and it has lead to all kinds of unintended consequences.

If you're wondering what this has to do with content management, it's all about content distribution and using the full weight and power of the federal government to take down websites and make arrests on behalf of big media entities, who even after all these years, remain deathly afraid of the Internet as a content distribution system.

Exhibit A is the infamous Aaron Swartz case. You may not have realized it, but the case that lead to that brilliant young man taking his own life was all about content, and for much of his much too short life, he was dedicated to sharing knowledge. He saw copyright as an impediment to that goal. Swartz was arrested for downloading journal articles from the JSTOR database, which includes academic books and journal articles. If you have academic access to these articles, you can download them and view them for free. Swartz had such access, but decided to take it all.

The ironic part here is according to Rolling Stone, in this excellent recap of the entire sorry tale, JSTOR didn't want to prosecute, and Swartz even agreed to give back the entire haul and to never copy or distribute it, but right after the incident, MIT called the police. Somehow, the Secret Service got involved. It spiraled out of control from there and eventually landed on the desk of Federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz who decided to go after Swartz and use the full power of her office to prosecute him. We know what happened next.

It was just the latest example of the government overreach on behalf of big content owners. Want another infamous example? How about the case of Kim Dotcom and MegaUpload. Dotcom ran a file storage site where some users allegedly uploaded and shared pirated content. Last year, the federal government, acting at the behest of the big media companies, decided to put a stop to it. They not only took down the site, and seized the company's servers (which contained both legal and allegedly pirated content), they convinced the New Zealand government to send elite anti-terrorist troops to Dotcom's home to arrest him.

That's not enough for you? How about using the the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take down websites accused of copyright violations or the Department of Homeland Security getting involved in YouTube take-down notices. Ridiculous enough for you?

Since when has content ownership and sharing content become so heinous that it's linked to terrorism, racketeering and hacking? And why are the Justice Department, The Secret Service, ICE and Homeland Security using their powers to protect big content owners?

It's all part of a complete lack of understanding by the courts, the government and big media companies themselves about how the Internet works in the 21st century. They are instead applying rigid 20th century notions of copyright to the Internet age.

Last week, we posted an infographic on how to properly attribute content using a Creative Commons license. The latter is an attempt by sane individuals to find a less rigid form of copyright, one that allows the content owner to define the exact terms of the ownership and how it can be shared.

I want to be clear that I don't condone outright content stealing. As a writer, I clearly understand that there are lines here you don't cross, but at the same time the copyright lines are not quite as black and white as some federal agencies would have us believe. And even if they were, they still don't warrant the kind of punishment that the government threatened Aaron Swartz with for his alleged wrong-doings--50 years in the federal pen--or using anti-terrorism forces to arrest an alleged violator.

While these big cases highlight the extent to which big media companies and the government will go to protect institutional copyright, they don't show the lesser cases with hundreds of take-down notices issued every day under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In one particularly absurd example, a movie studio asked IMDB to take down a movie's page from the database, as well as the publicly available trailer. Check out Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) copyright transparency report and see who the chief requestors are.

If it's total control they want, the media companies will continue to fight a sisyphean battle. A better idea would be to exercise a modicum of common sense and find a way to share reasonably. What's funny is that by being so rigid, these companies, and the government agencies enforcing their bidding, are encouraging the very behavior they are hoping to stop. 

Regardless, it's time to stop criminalizing content sharing and for the government to stop being the copyright police for big media. I'm sure there are more than enough real criminals out there to keep them busy. Enough is enough. Seriously. - Ron