I feel like I write about Cory Doctorow a lot on here. Maybe that’s because I’m secretly dreaming of writing a book-length study of how writing is portrayed in science fiction, and I know his work would be a stellar candidate for rhetorical analysis. But probably it’s mostly because his ideas make whole lot of stinking sense.
In an important wake-up call to Internet users, Doctorow recently published a piece in the UK’s Guardian, “Corporate Bullying on the Net Must Be Resisted.” He tells the story of a cease-and-desist letter his ISP received from Ralph Lauren after one of his colleagues at BoingBoing posted one of Lauren’s photos for the purpose of commenting on it–which, he points out, means that their use of the photo falls firmly in the area of fair use. (For good advice about Fair Use see this awesome video and report from American University’s Center for Social Media.)
His ISP declined Lauren’s stupid pushiness, and Doctorow and pals posted Lauren’s mean letter for public mockery online. But he adds an important warning:
It is the norm for ISPs to remove anything and everything on receipt of a legal notice. A group of Oxford internet researchers tried an experiment with this a few years ago, posting copies of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 On Liberty on a variety of European ISPs’ servers, and then sending notices to the ISPs purporting to come from Mill’s copyright holders (Mill’s copyrights are nonexistent, having returned to the public domain more than a century ago) and demanding that On Liberty be taken down. All but one of the ISPs in the study complied.
And why not? For a free hosting service such as Blogspot or YouTube or Flickr or Scribd, the lifetime profit from a given customer is likely exceeded by the cost of one call to a solicitor asking for advice on a takedown notice. Even paid services operate on such razor-thin margins that they’re unlikely to seek legal advice in the face of most threats.
In other words, if a copyright holder sends a cease-and-desist letter, users aren’t necessarily in violation. It’s like when the middle school bully gets up in your face and tells you that you stole his lunch, even though you didn’t.
This has wide-ranging implications for education, and especially for writing teachers, of course. When our students create multimodal compositions from found material online, it’s part of the academic system for those students to cite their sources–but in most cases, if they’re only using parts of the copyrighted work and if their purpose is to critique, they aren’t legally required to get the copyright owners’ permissions. And that’s even if they get a nasty letter.