Some random thoughts on intellectual property particularly on the web and on social networking web sites. Somewhat sparked, obviously, by the recent Facebook debacle.
I am not a lawyer. This (intellectual property) is a very technical
area of the law, and also a very active area lately. I’d love to see
a version of this article written by an expert.
What, under current law, is it necessary for a site like Facebook to
claim? At a minimum, they have to store your content on their servers,
and they have to distribute your content to users who have
permission to view it (largely controlled by the poster).
Furthermore, they have to make backup copies, and keep some of those
copies off-site (and in fact Facebook itself probably isn’t housed in
one datacenter, so the information is already replicated around the
country or world just to be accessible on the site). And they have to
be able to restore an entire backup even if they then need to delete
parts of it.
What if you want to cancel your account? Well, they can’t possibly
extract your data from among the backups; it’s not technically feasible.
And they still need to be able to restore backups to their live
servers without becoming criminals. It’s also perfectly possible
(though I’m sure they make efforts to minimize the chance) that your
deletion might get lost (not backed up when the datastore crashes),
and they don’t want to be criminals if that happens. The best they
can reasonably offer is some sort of good effort to stop distributing
your content. (Also, in the facebook case, some of “your” content is
part of other people’s sites, because you wrote it on their wall or
such. Pulling it all down makes other people’s sites incomplete.
Legally you seem to have the right to demand that, but it’s not good
for the site.)
They might reasonably want protection from software glitches that
displayed your content to people you hadn’t authorized (not your
friends, in Facebook terms). Sure, such glitches would be their
fault, but criminal copyright violation comes high, and it’s not
something they really want to worry about when writing social
networking security code.
Beyond this, they have a reasonable interest in promoting the site.
To do that, one thing they’d want to show is some of the content on
the site, at least in the form of screenshots. This is a bit of a
rights grab; arguably they should have to negotiate individually with
each person whose content they use in advertising. However, the
agreement they make with those people should be long-term, probably
open-ended, because otherwise any provider of content they used in the
ad could require that they instantly pull that ad.
Previous systems have had interesting histories. Usenet, for example,
was never successfully challenged as a whole. It appears that
submitting an article to a newsgroup adequately serves as permission
for it to be stored and propagated and quoted. I’m not sure it’s been
explicitly litigated; but since the system has been in place for more
than 20 years, working that way consistently, with no central
controlling hub (technical) or owner (administrative), it’s the only
feasible outcome other than saying you can’t have Usenet.
Deja News (and now Google) archiving of Usenet, including old Usenet
articles retrieved from magtapes where they could find them, is an
even more interesting situation. Again, it hasn’t been seriously
litigated that I know of. Google has deep pockets, so if a prolific
poster was in a position to get damages per copy of each post, or some
such, it would be huge. Of course people with deep pockets also have
good lawyers. (I have to say here that I think the archiving of
Usenet is a wonderful thing. I love having access to the old
discussion I was involved in, they form part of my external memory.
I’m glad the legal world seems to be finding such uses legal.)
Some people are concerned that stuff they say online may last
forever. Well, that’s true for stuff published as a newspaper op-ed
or letter, too, or even in letters sent to friends. The net, and
Google, make it easier to find such things, but if they’ve been
recorded in writing, they’re capable of coming back to haunt you even
before the net. I think the obscurity and ephemeral nature of human
interaction was giving people an unreasonable feeling of safety that
history doesn’t justify.
It may be, however, that this is bringing a level of scrutiny
previously only feasible for high-profile people onto everybody. That
would be a big change, not necessarily a good one. If the governor of
New York patronizes prostitutes, and somebody suspects it and the news
media start publishing the speculation, it’s nearly certain that the
people in a position to testify to it will learn of it; and they may
well decide to come forward and take the notoriety (and the money).
The news media is unlikely to widely publish such speculations about
ordinary citizens, so the people in a position to testify are less
likely to hear about it, and the rewards in cash or notoriety for
coming forward are less. Unless, of course, something happens to make
you a celebrity suddenly (like Joe the Plumber, say).
Archive.org seems to be in an interesting position. Lots of the sites
they mirror they have no contractual arrangement with (such as mine),
which would seem to put them technically in violation of copyright.
Nevertheless they remain in business. And I find them a tremendously
I think the current copyright term, life of the creator plus 70 years,
is tremendously too long. I don’t really approve of granting
copyright for the full life of the creator; tacking 70 years onto that
is absurd. We got into this situation (starting at life plus 50) by
signing on to the Berne copyright convention, which is the major
international agreement on copyrights, so this will be very hard to
change. But still. Too long. Far too long.
(The argument for life of the creator, of course, is that one
shouldn’t have to live to see what people do to your work when you
can’t stop them. Also, that it’s very often not until the end of a
creative lifetime that the financial rewards start to come in, and
seeing your early books be bestsellers *while living in poverty* is
cruel. The argument for life plus something is then that the
publisher can’t say “Well, you’re not looking too healthy, so I won’t
pay much now, I’ll just wait.”)
I know in publishing it can be dificult to include a story in an
anthology because the editor can’t find who currently holds the
rights. Much of the stuff I care about is not a big money property
like a blockbuster movie, and people just don’t focus on keeping track
of the rights. The tremendously extended term of today’s copyright is
making this part harder for the parts of popular culture I care about,
I guess for the purpose of extending the commercial life of big
properties owned by big media companies. I believe big chunks of
culture are being lost because the copyright ownership is unclear.
The longer the term of copyright, the more this will happen.
Possibly different terms for corporate and individual copyright are
appropriate; the corporations are better at keeping track of details
over time, and deal with more expensive properties (movies inherently
cost a bunch to produce). Perhaps giving them a fairly long fixed
term, say 50 years, with a renewal option (renewal seems to have made
it much easier for Gutenberg to get things considered to be public
domain even though published after 1922) would be good. Whereas
individual creators could have life plus 10, or something. (However,
corporate terms are available to an individual for the cost of
incorporating, so maybe splitting them doesn’t make sense. One idea
I’m picking around at is offering real corporate creations a good deal
essentially as a bribe to keep them from fucking up the rest of the
system, which has rather different needs.)
The orphan works bill that raised such a stink was attempting to
resolve some of these same issues. There are certainly problems with
works being orphaned, or at least with the owner not being easily
determinable, it’s a real problem.
Seems to me the rights for the musical Hair Godspell were badly tied up for
years because they were too widely distributed (in a well-meaning
egalitarian gesture). This seems to have hurt everybody, in all
communities of interest, in the end. At the time that arrangement was
made there was no reason to expect it to be a valuable commercial
property, but the arrangement to some extent caused that result.
There are a number of cases where copyright has been used essentially
to keep something unavailable. Cults use it when muckrakers try to
publish their secret documents, for example. I’ve also heard of cases
where parents or spouses or the author themselves want a particular
work to be unavailable. Once something has been published (which lets
out some of the cult cases), I don’t really believe in using copyright
to try to un-publish it. I never like the results.