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.
It's been a while since I've posted anything here. (You may have noticed.) As I get back into the swing of things, I'd like to go over events of the past several months and tell you where I plan to take things from here.
When I left off six months ago, I was thinking about what kind of career I would like to have. At the time, I was unemployed and considering various options which I mostly only touched on briefly here. Based on my writing here, it's not a surprise that I'm interested in law. Some other ideas I've been considering are journalism, teaching, and music conducting.
Meanwhile, I have been working through a temp agency to cover my bills. As luck would have it, my most recent assignment was as an administrative assistant to a professor at a law school. My conclusion after some close up observation is that law school probably isn't for me. However, I was working for a criminal law professor, and I knew going in that my interests are elsewhere. I could have told you that I don't want to be anywhere near a courtroom before I worked on mock trials.
I haven't completely rejected the idea of law school, but at this point I'm a lot more skeptical. Much as I have an interest in some areas of law, I don't think law school's the way for me.
Temp work is hardly the only thing that's occupied my time recently. I just finished a vocal directing gig during the recent production of Iolanthe with The MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players. Working with my co-vocal director Jess and the other members of the cast and crew was a great pleasure and I'm very proud of the end result. We had two weekends of excellent performances, and it would have been smart of me to write it up before it happened rather than after to encourage my readers to come see the show.
That points out one of the downsides of my vocal director role. I had very little free time outside of the show and blogging was a logistical impossibility. There's another downside which I think is more significant. I can have a tendency to be something of a loner, and conducting greatly exacerbated that. I spent a few hours a day in front of the cast five days a week. Whenever I wasn't actually conducting, I found myself wanting to avoid other people entirely.
I generally like to be more social than that and I'm not happy about this apparent side effect of conducting. As a result, I don't plan to be a conductor again soon. I think it's an unfortunate result, since I did enjoy the experience itself and I was extremely pleased with the performances the cast delivered. This experience also does not bode well for the possibility of making a career of conducting or of teaching which has the similar position of being directly in front of and controlling a large group of people.
Like with my experience in the law office, I may be overgeneralizing and the people avoiding response might not normal for me in that position. Nonetheless, I'm still concerned.
What comes next? Generally, I don't have any real answers. I intend to continue doing temp work while looking into more long term career plans. And I intend to start blogging regularly again. Blogging at the rate I did last year isn't sustainable. I had trouble sustaining it while I was unemployed, and that's not really an option I can afford at this point.
My current plan is to experiment with an op-ed column format. I plan to write posts of about 750 words twice a week. The goal is to write on a regular basis, but to not set my target at an unattainable level. If this format doesn't work, I will make changes until I find something that does.
This post is my first post in my new format. I will continue to write about copyright issues and will also cover other thoughts about my career options and other topics as they come up. Hopefully this post will be the first of many.