Bad strategy and poor reporting

It is hardly surprising that the recent effort by the Associated Press to stop bloggers from quoting news articles, even when they link to the source on AP’s own web site, has generated lots of comment in the blogging world. AP recently sent takedown notices, using the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to try to have blog posts that quoted as little as 35 words of an AP story removed from the Internet. The has been enough coverage that it seems unnecessary to rehearse all the commentary; there is a story at Ars Technica here, and one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation here. Basically most of the coverage makes the same two, fairly obvious, points; this is a terrible strategy from a public relations point of view (as even AP now admits) and it represents an interpretation of fair use that would entirely eviscerate that vital exception if accepted by the courts.

What does deserve extended comment however, is one of the news stories that repeats a couple of common misconceptions that need to be dispelled. This report on the E-Commerce Times site offers the opportunity to clarify and correct two important errors about the DMCA and fair use.

First, the E-Commerce story quotes a source who refers repeatedly, and defiantly, to “this ruling.” This is probably just careless language, but it also re-enforces the mistaken notion that receipt of a DMCA takedown notice means that infringement definitely has taken place. In fact, a rights-holder sends a takedown notice, using very specific provisions that the DMCA added to chapter 5 of the copyright act (17 U.S.C. 512), because they merely believe that their copyright is being infringed. There is no required quantum of evidence beyond a “good faith belief that use of the material… is not authorized,” nor must a rights holder consider possible defenses to the claimed infringement. These provisions were never intended to substitute for a judicial determination on the question of infringement; they are intended, instead, to help the ISP avoid liability for any possible infringement by users of the service. The ISP does have to remove the material or block the user upon receipt of a take down notice, but they also must notify the user of the action and restore the material if the user sends a counter notice stating their own good faith belief that the removal was wrongful. Thus the notice and takedown process helps establish if there really is a conflict and gives the ISP a protected role when there is, but it leaves the resolution of the issue of infringement up to a court. The mere fact that the AP sent these initial notices is in no way any sort of “ruling” or definitive decision.

The second error in the E-Commerce story is its reference to “the fair use provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” which, we are told, the AP hopes to clarify. There is, of course, no fair use provision in the DMCA; fair use is much older than that piece of relatively recent legislation. Indeed, fair use is a doctrine initially created by judges in the early 19th century (in the US) to mitigate the harmful effects of the copyright monopoly. The DMCA, which took effect only in 2000, does not add anything to the fair use analysis, nor does it, in theory, narrow its scope; where fair use is mentioned in the DMCA it is only to emphasis that Congress did not intend the provisions of the DMCA, which attempt to deal with some of the new issues arising in a digital environment, to alter the applicability of fair use.

This last point is important, because it reminds us that we are not dealing with any new provision about what uses are acceptable in the digital realm. Instead, the same old provision about fair use (17 U.S.C. 107), which emphasizes the privileged status of news reporting and has traditionally been held to protect short quotations, would be applied in deciding whether or not these passages from AP news stories were used by bloggers in a manner authorized by law. The assertions by AP that these uses are not fair use seem difficult to credit, but the point is that a court would have to decide the issue (if the AP decided to push that far; it is a much more costly and serious step than merely sending a takedown notice), and the standard used to make that decision would be the familiar four factors of fair use, just as they were outlined by Justice Story in 1841.

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