Update on Coulton-gate: Copyright So Confusing Even Creators Get Confused Over Who Holds What.

Last night I received an email from Jeremy at Viacom:

“Hi Harold.  A good deal of your post about “Flickr” was incorrect.  In the interest of being as informative as possible to your readers, you should check out: http://twitter.com/jonathancoulton/statuses/15804884261″


As always, what I love about copyright flaks is their commitment to courtesy. How could I resist such a charming invitation? Following the link, I found this Tweet from Jonathan Coulton:

Oops – turns out I gave iFilm permission to post flickr in 06 before they were Spike.com. Viacom does not owe me $37. Sorry Viacom!”


Which rather underscores the point I was making. In this world where all variety of rights are traded back and forth, even the artist can’t always tell for sure if his/her rights are violated. Nor, as I pointed out, are Coulton and Viacom alone in being confused over who owns what. The last few days saw the New York Times demand Apple pull the Pulse iPad newsreader for violating rules about how it makes its RSS feed, then allow it to return a day later.


Under the standard for “graduated response” demanded by content companies like Viacom, and being pushed in such agreements as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) the mere accusation of IP infringement can get your internet access cut. Nor do these proposals fron the content industry generally provide for any sort of challenge process. So if we were applying “graduated response” to Viacom, they’d still have “one strike” against them despite being ultimately vindicated by the creator himself. Had the initial story triggered a copyright filter, Viacom would have lost revenue from lost sales with no opportunity for recourse.


Which brings me back to where I started yesterday — knowing who holds the rights to what these days and figuring out what rights you have is damn complicated; even huge companies and the creators of content sometimes have trouble keeping track.  Jonathan Coulton honestly can’t tell at first glance that a company is using rights from a predecesor in interest, and Steve Jobs — despite his iron grip on Apple’s App Store — can’t gaurantee that an RSS feed aggregator meets all the licensing terms for every feed. But people expect an ordinary person downloading a video clip or some guy trying to create some new technology or business can figure it out? Or worse, they expect some magic copyright filter can figure it out?


It’s a little much to expect Viacom, or the rest of the copyright maximalist crowd, to learn from this that “false positives” occur and that for those wrongly accused (even if ultimately vindicated) a system of “guilty until proven innocent” is outrageously unfair (and potentially devestating if you aren’t Viacom or Apple). Heck, judging from the tone of the email I got alerting me to Coulton’s tweet, it’s probably too much to expect them to learn a touch of humility about copyright and enforcement. But I do hope that the Policy Mandarins here in the Forbiden City of Washington, who buy into the simple storyline that copyright is easy so what could be the harm with adopting filtering or 3 Strikes, will start to have some second thoughts.


  1. I’ve been there myself. Many of my stories are licensed to be ebooks from one company, which then bundles and sells licenses to other companies. I do see the money eventually, but there are times I’ve had to verify that someone selling copies of my work online as ebooks actually did have the rights to do so.

    It does get messy.

  2. The writing is on the wall. All of this rights-wrangling is a waste of everybody’s time and effort (creators and consumers alike), and the sooner any content creator or company realises this and readjusts their strategy not to depend on locking down rights at all, the better they will be position to continue to compete, 10 years from now.

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