Around 2012 the Internet went ablaze when Congressman Lamar Smith, who represents the 21st district of the state of Texas, was caught red handed using a photograph from photographer Don J Schulte, without any permission of the sort from the author, who had Creative Commons license on his work. Obviously, not one mention of the author of the photograph was to be found anywhere on the site, despite the fact that such a simple act was really all that was needed for the website to not be in any violation of the Creative Commons copyright. The picture was simply pasted to the Congressman’s background without a single thought beyond “well, that looks nice.”
What happened to Lamar Smith may at first description seem like a case of a non-crime, thus making it strange that he would receive the ire of the internet. That is, until one recalls that Lamar Smith was one of the fathers of the much hated SOPA bill, which attempted to enact draconian measures in an attempt to limit copyright violations. If there was any real aftermath to the revelation, it seems hard to find. Nowhere did Lamar Smith ever address his copyright violation after Vice magazine uncovered the original story. Instead, the website of Lamar Smith was briefly offline shortly thereafter, and if you were to visit it now, you would find a different background picture in place of the incriminating one. Although Vice brought the story to everyone’s attention, Techdirt’s terse article brilliantly nominated the problem with all this in their opening line:
“Any time you have someone who is vehemently copyright maximalist, it’s really only a matter of time until someone discovers that they, too, violate copyrights.”
Regardless of the currently legality of copyrighted material in the context of the Internet and whatever current iteration of SOPA and its ilk, we the everyday people who use the Internet operate largely oblivious to many copyright infringements that are acted out on a daily basis. It should be said that these infringements likely happen with as little maleficent intent, as did the case of Lamar Smith; one finds some creative material online and without giving it a second thought they upload to some other venue. Suddenly, there is now a guilt and innocent party, and no one involved may even have the slightest idea that it happened.
It is perhaps for this reason that all these anti-piracy measures seem to be heavily in favor of corporate interests. We are constantly hearing stories about how some music or movie company is taking legal actions against an individual who is being accused of pirating intellectual property. However, despite ever increasing number of people who create intellectual work and distribute it via the Internet, these people very often do not have the means and the resources to take any kind of action against their antagonists. Popular youtuber Destin Sandlin, who runs the YouTube channel “Smarter Every Day,” published a video explaining this exact phenomenon and why there is little to no incentive for anyone to do anything about content theft in a timely manner.
Does this mean that the situation is hopeless? Perhaps not, and a story recently published on TorrentFreak demonstrates this well. Alfonzo Cutaia, who on the 18th of November 2014 filmed an interesting weather phenomenon over Lake Erie from his office window in Buffalo New York. Just as many enterprising modern person would, Cutaia uploaded his clip to YouTube and decided to monetize it.
The clip has since netted Cutaia nearly four million views, which is certainly an impressive feat, but despite the success and despite the fact that numerous television stations did ask Cutaia permission, one slightly less honest TV station—the Canadian Broadcasting Company, or the CBC—ripped the video from the Internet, only to upload it back on to their website with their own logo on it. Cutaia contacted the CBC and was told that they had bought the rights from CNN, who as well had no rights to use Cutaia’s 3o second video. Unfortunately for both parties, Cutaia is an Intellectual Property Attorney and is willing to go to court over the allegations that the CBC, knowing that the material was copyrighted and that they had no license for it, had been using the video for a matter of months. He as well accuses them of having violated DMCA when they ripped his video from YouTube.
But what of it? The current sentiment has been that digital piracy is omnipresent, and that sooner or later we would all be either under the scrutinizing finger of anti-piracy law. It was just last year that YouTuber Michelle Phan was sued—though the suit was ultimately settled out of court—perhaps absurdly, for using copyrighted music in her videos, something perhaps the majority of other YouTubers have done in their videos. YouTube itself found itself at the end of Viacom’s litigious arm because its users were doing exactly that. The very congressman who is attempting to legislate draconian anti piracy laws—mostly to protect large companies and corporations—violates the spirit if not the letter of those very laws.
Cutaia’s case is interesting because it is the first time copyright laws seem to be functioning in the opposite direction—that is, protecting the property of an individual from a larger corporation—and has certainly been a long time coming. The notion that an individual can bring a corporation to court over what are essentially page views is a novelty that many of us were waiting for. The model of creative content creation has been changing drastically over the past few years, with more and more individuals, as opposed to people working for companies, creating content for their own profit. The news, tech blogs, and the media companies themselves remind us constantly that infringing on their copyrights is a crime. This case is the first to remind them that their infringement against our copyrights is as well against the law. The case is one to follow.