It can be easy to think of copyright issues as abstract problems which don't really directly affect you. However, if you have a website, there's always the possibility that you will find yourself on the wrong side of copyright law. Jason Kottke's recent experiences demonstrate the risk you face posting online and how copyright law is fundamentally unbalanced.
On the Tuesday, November 30th episode of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings failed to win after winning the previous 74 episodes. This was a truly exceptional streak and he acquired many followers along the way. Episodes of Jeopardy! are taped well in advance of when they air, and information about the loss leaked well in advance of the broadcast date. Jason Kottke announced the date of Jennings' defeat on his blog on November 26th.
On November 28th, Jason posted the audio of the end of the episode and a transcript. Shortly thereafter, the copyright hammer came down. A lawyer for Sony, the corporation which produces Jeopardy!, contacted Jason and demanded that he remove the audio and transcript. He promptly did, but not before the post had gotten the attention of The Washington Post. Their article, which includes a transcript that appears to be taken from Jason's blog, was published the morning of November 30th, before the episode was broadcast.
Jason has not stated exactly what Sony's lawyers have said to him, but it's not hard to guess. Sony is likely claiming that Jeopardy! is a copyrighted broadcast and by publishing the audio clip and transcript, Jason was violating their copyright. They probably threatened to sue for damages if Jason did not remove the clip and transcript. In the face of Sony's lawyers, Jason has given up, although he states that he is still resolving the legal issues. More dishearteningly, he appears to be considering giving up his blog entirely. As he says, "As an individual weblogger with relatively limited financial and legal resources, I worry about whether I can continue to post things (legal or not) that may upset large companies and result in lawsuits that they can afford and I cannot."
The issue here isn't whether Sony is legally correct in forcing Jason to remove the materials from his site. Sony undoubtedly holds the copyright for the show, but from a non-lawyer's perspective, Jason appears to have a slam dunk fair use defense. The issue is that Jason can't afford to challenge Sony. Fair use or not, the cost of fighting a lawsuit from Sony is beyond what Jason or any individual posting things on the web can afford to pay.
It may be easy to dismiss this. After all, he published an actual recording of the show. And besides, it's happening to someone else. But that would be missing the point. The point is that the threat alone of legal action is so powerful that it can cause people to consider stop posting on the Internet at all. I guess some people might see this as opportunity. But most people should see it as a cause for alarm. Do you ever post things on the Internet? Do you ever include song lyrics? Or photographs? It's not just paranoid to worry that the copyright hammer could fall on you next.
Bonus irony: the article on The Washington Post website includes a "Permission to Republish" link. For kicks, I filled out the form, stating I wanted to republish the article on a non-profit Internet site for one year. They want $400. If I took them up on it, would Sony come after me for posting the transcript? If I don't pay for it and post it, will both companies come after me? If I post the transcript from the Post but not the rest of the article, will the Post come after me, or will I only have to worry about Sony? I'm curious about the answers, but I'm not posting anything. I'm too scared to find out.