Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Deceptive Copyright Notices

I have often pointed out some of the deceptive copyright notices that libraries and archives put on materials, such as the many statements on digitized public domain materials that tell users that they cannot make copies of the digital file without the permission of the holding library. (Yes, there is debate as to whether that constitutes a license and its agreement, but let's not go there for the moment.) I also have some wonderful examples of real-life copyright notices that are questionable at best, such as this notice which appears on the back cover of a... blank book:

Now an organization called the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has filed a complaint with the FTC stating that NFL, NBC, DreamWorks, Harcourt, and others, are misrepresenting the rights of consumers through their copyright notices. They do have some delightfully egregious examples in their document, and the web site allows you to view the video-related ones, such as the NFL's statement that any "account of the game without permission is prohibited." Wonderfully, they posted those clips on YouTube. Included in the complaint are those "FBI" warnings at the beginning of DVDs. There actually are aficionados of the FBI warning screens and their variations over time (blue phase, green phase) as well as numerous parodies like this one.

At the meeting on copyright at the University of Maryland, Fred von Lohmann of the EFF (whose talk was outstanding, and sadly is not available online even though it was webcast) showed a video with a modified FBI warning that says:

WARNING. Federal law allows citizens to reproduce, distribute, or exhibit portions of copyright motion pictures, video tapes, or video discs under certain circumstances without authorization of the copyright holder. This infringement of copyright is called "Fair use" and is allowed for purposes of criticism, news reporting, teaching, and parody.

This perfectly conveys the message that seems to be sought by this complaint, which is to point out that the truth is very different from the messages that we see every day.

The complaint talks about the "chilling effect" of the false statements about copyright. I think there's also a numbing effect -- the ridiculousness of the claims means that we just ignore them all, and leads folks to see copyright itself as ridiculous.

The complaint's "Request for Relief" is mainly a call for the FTC to make the companies stop making these false and misleading statements about user rights. Like the "punishment" meted out to the tobacco companies, the complaint also calls for the offending companies to be required to engage in some honest consumer education about copyright. (Are pigs flying yet?) There's another relief requested that I probably shouldn't point out because I suspect it's the real payoff:

Order the Rights-holder Corporations to forebear from attempting to force consumers into waiving their rights through contractual instruments, including contracts of adhesion.
The FTC action would only be against the companies named in the complaint, but if it were to become common practice, libraries and archives would be among those who have to clean up their act when it comes to statements about user rights.

So who or what is this CCIA? The list of members includes Google, Oracle, Microsoft, Sun, Fujitsu, Intuit, and many others. I admit that confuses me -- these are not the organizations that I would expect to engage in a campaign of this nature. The web site claims that the organization has existed for three decades, and it appears to be primarily a lobbying organization for "policy and legislation" on Capitol Hill. That part makes sense, but I'm baffled by their campaign for public rights. If they are trustworthy in this endeavor, I would like to see them prevail. But there's that "if" that nags at me.


Anonymous said...

Fred von Lohmann's copyright statement is better than most, but it is still wrong. Fred calls a fair use "this infringement of copyright." The law, of course, says explicitly that a fair use is not an infringement of copyright. It is important to make this distinction. Otherwise, it makes it sound like you are trying to get away with something when you make a fair use, when in reality it is your right to do so.

Guff said...

Hilariously enough, your example of a FBI warning screen parody has been removed from You Tube due to a “terms of use” violation. Funny, I’m pretty sure that the Supreme Court ruled that a parody was an original work and therefore protected……

waltc said...

CCIA has been around for a long time (I would certainly believe three decades) and has pretty consistently been on the balanced-copyright side. So I don't see this lawsuit as some strange feint; it's fairly consistent with their stances over the past few years.

Karen Coyle said...


Hilarious as in "laugh til you cry?" Wow.

Anonymous said...

Here is a recent article on just this problem: "Copyfraud," New York University Law Review (2006), available for (free) download at It discusses lots of examples of the problem and proposes solutions.