It’s never OK to use improper copyright claims to take down legitimate, non-infringing content, but such takedowns are particularly galling when they are timed to directly interfere with the impact of a political message. That’s what happened this week to the Free Tibet movement, and the situation illustrates the risks of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to copyright policing.
The 2008 Olympic Games have been marked by controversy relating to the human rights record of its host, China. Two days ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added to the debate by demanding that YouTube block a video of a protest by Students For A Free Tibet. The demand appeared to be based on a bogus copyright infringement claim: the protesters had projected various images on the wall of the Chinese consulate in New York, and the video of the protest was titled “Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.”
This is not the first time the IOC has used an intellectual property claim to stomp on speech. Nor is it the first time a content owner has caught a dolphin in its DMCA takedown driftnet. But the political and time-sensitive nature of this video made this “mistake” particularly appalling.
The blogosphere reacted with outrage, and rightly so. EFF made some inquiries of our own (we understand YouTube did so as well) and the IOC ultimately withdrew the complaint. That is a good thing. But this takedown highlights a larger problem. It takes just seconds to have a video taken down, but over two weeks to get a video put back up. And YouTube’s hair-trigger content verification program has made takedown even easier and faster—content owners can rapidly create lists of videos for takedown, and then send a takedown demand with a couple of additional clicks.
If IOC had not withdrawn its notice, here’s what would have happened in this case: the protesters’ DMCA counter-notice would have started the clock running and, if the IOC didn’t sue within 10-14 days—which of course it wouldn’t have, because it didn’t have a claim—the video would be restored. But that wouldn’t happen until after the 2008 games were over, and the delay would inevitably lessen the video’s political impact. As political organizers of all stripes know, timing is everything.
The DMCA was not designed to help content owners silence legitimate speech, even temporarily. But that’s exactly what happens when content owners don’t bother to form a good faith belief that the material they target is actually infringing. Shame on the IOC for failing to meet its minimal obligations.