Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "A newspaper copies a rant from a girl's MySpace page and reprints it as a 'Letter to the Editor' without her permission. Could the girl sue for copyright violation? This question provoked much more disagreement among legal experts than I expected." Read on for the details.
In 2005, a college student published a rant on her hometown on her MySpace page, beginning with, "The older I get, the more I realize how much I despise Coalinga." Her former high school principal found the rant while browsing her MySpace page (what?), and forwarded it to the town newspaper, which published the "rant" without the girl's permission, signed with her full name, as a letter to the editor (what?). The resulting fallout included death threats against the family and the closure of the 20-year-old business owned by the girl's father. Four years later, a judge ruled that the girl could not sue for "public disclosure of private facts" because the MySpace post was not private. But what about a copyright claim?
Normally the "damages" for unauthorized copying of a MySpace post would be so close to zero, that a moral victory in court is all you could get. But if her father's business lost so much money that it had to close, could the family sue for those losses resulting from the copyright infringement?
It is perhaps indicative of the mathematician/programmer mindset, that after reading about a school principal downloading a rant form a former student's MySpace page and arranging with a friend to "out" her in the town newspaper, the first thing that popped into my head was: "copyright infringement." But copyright law has a nice binary, one-or-zero, they-did-it-or-they-didn't quality that resonates with left-brainers. As several lawyers said to me while I was asking them questions for this story, the girl would probably have a better claim for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and for "false light publicity" — but those rights of action are more nebulous concepts in law, and the trial outcome would depend more on the judge's personal opinions and on the history of similar rulings in the state. Copyright law is, at least in theory, standardized in federal law and laid out in black and white, so that even non-lawyers have a chance of understanding it. But I still wanted to ask some lawyers for their opinions.
This started for me as an investigation of copyright law as it applied to these situations. (I personally know a few people whose content has been reused on other people's websites or e-mail lists with varying degrees of legality, and I'd like to be better informed about what to tell them.) But it ended up becoming a case study in how to interpret conflicting opinions from different lawyers.
There were some notions that I had completely wrong about copyright law, and the lawyers that I queried pointed those out unanimously. On the other hand, there are some questions where the legal community is divided on the correct answer, and you might pick one answer and a lawyer with the opposite point of view would tell you you were "wrong," when a different lawyer might tell you that you were "right." Whenever lawyers tell me something, and especially if they tell me that I should listen to them because they're a lawyer and I'm not, I always ask the same thing: If I were to ask this question of 10 different lawyers, would at least 8 out of them of them agree? If the answer is No, then — while each lawyer is still be entitled to their opinion, it is just an opinion, not a settled fact within the profession. In fact, I wouldn't even trust the results if I asked 10 lawyers who were all in the same room; my general impression is that when I ask lawyers a question who are in the room together, they agree more frequently than if I ask them a similar question separately, perhaps consciously or subconsciously out of a desire to make it look as if the "expert consensus" is stronger than it really is. The fairest test would be to ask 10 lawyers separately and compare their answers.
So, I posted a notice to Peter Shankman's Help A Reporter Out service, asking for legal experts to comment on the copyright issue. HARO is a nifty way to get your name in print once in a while if you're an expert on any subject; you can sign up for the mailing list as a "source," and then reporters send queries to HARO that are redistributed to the mailing list asking for experts on a particular subject. (The very first day after I signed up last September, I got featured as a "web filtering expert" in an article in an adult industry trade magazine, whereupon I'm sure my mother sent the link to all of her friends right away.) But I was interested in using it in a different way from most reporters. Usually, reporters posting a query are looking for multiple expert opinions that they can synthesize into a consensus answer for their story. I was posting my query to find out whether any consensus even existed.
The questions I put to the HARO list were: Could the girl bring a lawsuit against the paper for violating her copyright? Is it something she could even do in Small claims court to save time and money? And as for damages, I knew that in cases of copyright violations for works not registered with the Copyright Office, plaintiffs were usually limited to actual damages. But could she claim the losses to her family's business as "actual damages," since the harm was caused as a result of the copyright violation?
Before reading any further, you might want to consider how you would answer these questions. Then you can see whether your answers agree with those given by the experts.
Pencils down. First, the things that all lawyers agreed I got completely wrong:
- Virtually every lawyer who responded said that you could only bring copyright claims in federal court. This advice passed the 8-out-of-10 test, as well it might, since this rule is laid out in the U.S. Code.
- Second, to bring a copyright claim at all, you first have to register your work with the Copyright Office by mailing it to them with a $35 fee. (There was some inconsistency in the answers here, but the consensus seems to be: You own the copyright on something as soon as you create it, but you can't file a copyright lawsuit until after you've registered your work. However, once you've registered, you can then go back and sue for copyright violations that took place before the registration date. If you register more than 90 days after the date of first publication, you can only sue for actual damages — your monetary losses, or the infringer's ill-gotten gains — for violations that took place before you registered the work. But if you register within 90 days of first publication, you can sue for statutory damages and attorney's fees, even for violations that took place before you registered.)
Third: Suppose the court did find that the girl's copyright was violated. Can the harm to her father's business be counted under actual damages? Well, first there is the issue of whether she can consider these as damages at all, since they were to her father's business, not to her. As I put it to Paul MacArthur, Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Utica College: If X violates the rights of Y but the bulk of the harm is done to Z, can Y sue, even though they weren't the main victim? Professor MacArthur, said: "Generally, no. But, perhaps, because it impacts her family's income, she can claim a loss."
But the real difference is that harm indirectly resulting from the copyright infringement is not legally the same as actual damages, and here's where the different experts agreed. Said one legal expert who asked not to be identified by name:
"In the fact pattern for this case, you have to know that the damage to the family is considered 'consequential' or 'indirect' damages - not actual damages. In a copyright suit, actual damages are the financial losses incurred as a result of lost profit from your work."
Joshua King, an attorney with Avvo.com, a site that provides attorney ratings and other services to help consumers navigate the legal profession, agreed: "Even if a court were to consider the father's lost business, those damages would be considered consequential damages." Three other lawyers who responded all said essentially the same thing.
So those were the points where the lawyers agreed. But what about a fair use defense? From years of reading Copyright FAQs, you probably know that the fair use doctrine allows third parties to use portions of a copyrighted work without the copyright owner's permission under some circumstances. As Mike Plumleigh, an intellectual property lawyer in California summarized it for me, the four factors that determine whether a use qualifies as fair use are:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the copyrighted work;
- amount and substantially of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Although, whenever I read a law or legal text earnestly claiming that such-and-such depends on this other list of factors, it seems ironic that the list is intended to "clarify" the meaning of the law, when the list items are often just as open to ambiguous interpretation as the original item they were intended to clarify. The acid test of whether a rule has been "clarified" is how much experts agree on how to interpret the rule in a given situation; if experts can't agree to interpret it, then it's no more "clear" than it was before.
That seemed to be the case in this instance, where I got a lot of conflicting answers from the attorneys who responded. Joshua King said: "The newspaper may well have a fair use defense even though they published the whole thing." Mike Plumleigh agreed with the likelihood of the "fair use" defense and gave a longer explanation (referring to his numbered list above):
"Not to go into detail of how a court might rule on the analysis, but here's my quick take:
- Under (1), the use could be found to be for criticism, comment and (by the paper) news reporting (and the cases also consider 1st amendment factors under this one)
- Under (2) and (4) the original work was not intended for commercial purposes, had little apparent market value, and is more a short statement of fact/opinion rather than having significant creative or other "authorship" elements.
- Under (3), all of the "work" seems to have been reproduced, but this factor would likely be outweighed by the others.
I haven't seen the published letter or the original journal post, so my analysis above might be somewhat different if what was copied was a longer essay about life in Coalinga or similar. Nonetheless, the market value/effect would still be an issue, and the criticism/commentary purposes could still tip in favor of fair use."
Venkat Balasubramani, a Seattle copyright attorney, cast a vote-with-caveats for the fair use defense as well:
Fair use is always tough to predict and fact-intensive. On the one hand, there's little commercial value in the letter. Also, the fact that she published the letter in MySpace may itself be newsworthy and the newspaper is entitled to publish at least portions of the letter. Overall, her copyright claims are weak, damages minimal, and the newspaper's fair use arguments fairly strong. (Caveat again the fair-use is fact-intensive.)
In the other corner, Phil Marcus, a negotiation and intellectual property lawyer in Baltimore, commented, "I do not think 'fair use' includes using a person's words to get them run out of town." Professor MacArthur said, "There is no way what the paper's use of the student's writings qualifies as fair use." I asked if the other factors wouldn't weigh in favor of the newspaper, since there was no apparently commercial market for the essay, but Professor MacArthur disagreed:
"The nature of the copyrighted work as a temporarily published work that the girl choose to pull off of her MySpace page. She has the right to remove her writings from her MySpace page and no one has the right to continue to distribute those writings in their entirety without her consent. So, number 2 is her favor (really, issue number two looks more at non-published vs. published, with non-published being afforded more protection).
In terms of number 4, the claim could be made the that there is an impact on the market. These are her personal writings. Perhaps, in the future, she wants to put them on her own web site and make a profit via Google's AdSense or via a pay for content web site. The newspaper, by publishing her writings, may have lessened her ability to charge for this piece/monetize it. I'm not saying she is going to do this, but this issue is something for a judge/jury to decide."
Stephen Roe, an attorney with Lathrop Clark in Virginia, was even-handed but leaning against fair use:
"Were she to sue for copyright infringement, I think the court would be faced with a difficult decision. Were I defending the newspaper and principal, I would certainly assert fair use, in that the purpose was for news reporting and comment and criticism. However, they would appear to have a problem, in that the girl's letter was not submitted BY HER as a letter to the editor, and thus was falsely attributed to her as a letter to the editor... A court may be willing to find that the principal and the paper were NOT within the fair use safe harbor, especially if she could establish ill intent. Were I hearing the case, I would be very sympathetic to her situation, especially given the relationship between the principal and the editor and the apparent mis-attribution."
So, three votes on either side. I myself would probably argue on the side of the fair use defense against a pure copyright violation, because the girl was not selling her work, and the principal was trying to convey the fact of the girl's dislike for Coalinga (which is inappropriate conduct for a high school principal, but not against the law).
I think the lesson here is that even though many Internet copyright controversies depend on what is protected under "fair use," that is much less clearly defined than one might hope. If someone blatantly lifts content from your home page and posts it on their own website for commercial gain, that's a copyright violation, but what if they only post excerpts for the purpose of "commenting" on it? What if you posted something snarky on your blog, and later took it down, but someone else archived a copy on their blog in order to show the world what a dick they thought you were? You may not know offhand whether these actions are protected under "fair use," but it would be nice to think that the answer exists, and that a lawyer could steer you towards it. No such luck in some situations.
Or, perhaps the more general lesson is that when seeking advice from lawyers, it's worth getting multiple opinions. Sometimes if a lawyer tells you, "I'm sure that I'm right about this, because I'm a lawyer," they really are right, as in several of the points above where they set me straight. But not always. And the way to find out is to ask four or five different lawyers and see what they say. I'm a member of a cheap legal insurance plan ($20/month) that entitles to me to call "in-network" lawyers for a few minutes of advice each on a given legal question. The provider probably thinks of this as a cheapo option for people who can't afford real legal consultations, but I think that 10 minutes of advice from 6 different lawyers, is enormously more valuable than one hour of advice from one lawyer, because then you can categorize their advice into things they agree on (which are likely to reflect "the law") and things they don't agree on (which are likely to be just their opinions).
If more legal debaters recognized this distinction, perhaps many bitter legal disputes outside the courtroom could be resolved by agreeing to disagree. Prior to a court ruling, "the law" is just defined as the consensus among legal experts on how to interpret a statute. So if experts are divided on a given question, then by definition there is no consensus and hence no "law," so what are they arguing about?