Volkswagen Claims Ownership of an Entire Group of Insects
Using word searches to find infringement is a bad way to go about things. It is likely why Volkswagen filed three takedown requests for art of beetles. Not Beetles with four wheels and headlights. Beetles with six legs and hard, shiny carapaces. For the record, Volkswagen holds no rights to literal bugs.
Peggy Muddles is a scientist and an artist who marries her two lives by making science-themed art. Among her many digital prints are a number of works featuring beetles—the type of insect. And, well, Volkswagen was not having any of that.
Muddles sells some of her prints through the website RedBubble. On December 1, 2017, she received a takedown notice for her rove beetle art from Volkswagen. Now, the rove beetle is a common insect found throughout Europe. A Volkswagen Beetle is a car.
Volkswagen, it turns out, does not own beetles the insect, the largest group of animals on this planet. Nor does it own rove beetles, the largest group of beetles alive. And it does not own the depiction of the species Paederus fuscipes, the species Muddles depicted in her art.
In response, Muddles did the right thing: she consulted a lawyer, crafted a counter-notice explaining that her bug was not the same as a car named for a bug, and sent it to RedBubble and Volkswagen. “After VW’s option to pursue expired, I repeatedly attempted to contact RedBubble to have my listing reinstated, but received only automated replies indicating that my email had been received,” Muddles told EFF. “After about two months, I chalked it up to a simple error and re-uploaded the design.”
Oh, if only that were the end of it. Mistakes made, corrected, and everyone moves on having learned something. However, months later, in mid-2018, Muddles received two more takedowns for drawings of beetles from Volkswagen. Once again, the art was of insects and not cars.
Faced with the takedown of prints titled “Buprestic rufipes - red-legged Buprestis beetle” and “Rhipicera femoralis - feather horned beetle” (you can see how Volkswagen got confused and thought these were prints of cars), Muddles once again went to her lawyer.
This time, the lawyer sent a letter saying “the beetles that are the subject matter of our client’s works of art evolved over 300 million years ago, pre-dating the fine motor vehicles manufactured by your company by approximately 300 million years.”
“The next morning we had an apology and my listings were reinstated,” said Muddles in an email to EFF. “While my illustrations on RedBubble do not net me a huge amount of money, my sales there do contribute to my financial stability, and so I was immensely frustrated.”
Muddles is lucky. She knew the law and had access to a lawyer. Not everyone is in her position. Deciding to file a counter-notice can be a very fraught thing, even if you know you’re in the right.
This is why it’s important that actual human eyes, backed by actual human judgment, look at things before takedown notices are sent. Simple logic says that a sweep for the word “beetle” is going to turn up a lot of false positives for Volkswagen. And not every artist is going to be as knowledgeable as Muddles.
It’s also concerning that RedBubble didn’t get back to Muddles after the December incident. It should not take a sternly-worded letter from a lawyer after the third ridiculous takedown notice to get a response. After Muddles explained it and, again, human eyes confirmed that there was no infringement going on, her art should have been restored to the site.
At the very least, she shouldn’t have had to guess whether or not she was in the clear. Especially since receiving repeated, unresolved takedown notices can result in someone losing their account on a site. She should have known if she had a strike against her or not.
This kind of story really bugs. And, in case Volkswagen is reading, that’s in the colloquial sense, not the car.