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New uses for copyright law

Much as I like to jeer at the Guardian, sometimes it does a good deed in bringing sinister developments to the public’s attention. For instance:

Revealed: How copyright law is being misused to remove material from the internet

As soon as the DMCA takedown request had been filed, Google de-listed the entire thread. All 126 posts are now not discoverable when a user searches Google for BuildTeam – or any other terms. The search company told Mumsnet it could make a counterclaim, if it was certain no infringement had taken place, but since the site couldn’t verify that its users weren’t actually posting copyrighted material, it would have opened it up to further legal pressure.

In fact, no copyright infringement had occurred at all. Instead, something weirder had happened. At some point after Narey posted her comments on Mumsnet, someone had copied the entire text of one of her posts and pasted it, verbatim, to a spammy blog titled “Home Improvement Tips and Tricks”. The post, headlined “Buildteam interior designers” was backdated to September 14 2015, three months before Narey had written it, and was signed by a “Douglas Bush” of South Bend, Indiana. The website was registered to someone quite different, though: Muhammed Ashraf, from Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Quite why Douglas Bush or Muhammed Ashraf would be reviewing a builder based in Clapham is not explained in “his” post. BuildTeam says it has no idea why Narey’s review was reposted, but that it had nothing to do with it. “At no material times have we any knowledge of why this false DCMA take down was filed, nor have we contracted any reputation management firms, or any individual or a group to take such action on our behalf. Finally, and in conjunction to the above, we have never spoken with a ‘Douglas Bush,’ or a ‘Muhammed Ashraf.’”

Whoever sent the takedown request, Mumsnet was forced to make a choice: either leave the post up, and accept being delisted; fight the delisting and open themselves up to the same legal threats made against Google; or delete the post themselves, and ask the post to be relisted on the search engine.

“Although we understood the user’s argument that something odd had happened, we weren’t in a position to explain what – our hope was that by zapping one post we might ensure that the thread remained listed.”

Mumsnet deleted the post, and asked Google to reinstate the thread, but a month later, they received final word from the search firm: “‘Google has decided not to take action based on our policies concerning content removal and reinstatement’ which (it turned out) meant that they had delisted the entire thread”.

Interesting though it might be to read about BuildTeam meeting the Streisand Effect, I do not assume they are in the wrong. But someone has found a clever new way to censor comment on the web. I can see this strategy might prove popular. How could it be fought? A related question, also unrelated to this particular case: how can companies protect themselves against dishonest bad reviews?

6 comments to New uses for copyright law

  • Thailover

    False DMCA claims are not exactly new, as anyone familiar with youtube already well knows. It’s not only a form of censorship, it’s also a form of intimidation.

  • Mr Ed

    This reminds me of a bit in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy where someone sent a book through a worm hole back in time and published it before its author had written it, then sued him for copyright violation and won.

    Life imitates art, and if it hadn’t been Mumsnet it would be very sad, rather than slightly sad.

  • Watchman

    Is making a false claim not a crime in the UK and US at least? Presumably the penalties and risks associated with this are so small as to allow people to think false claims are worthwhile.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Making a false claim may well be a crime in the West, but anyone trying to follow the trail and discover who really initiated this piece of nastiness, will soon find themselves sucked into an endless mire of spam, one-time email addresses, untraceable links, and so on. Even supposing you can find the actual culprit, if they live in some Third-World Islamist dump (as seems likely in this case), nobody is going to remotely interested in taking any action.

    The thing to fight, then, is the mechanism by which this censorship is exerted; we could start by repealing the DMCA and telling Hollywood and Sony to take a hike.

  • Paul Marks

    It is all getting very silly.

    It is time for creative people to think up TECHNICAL (not LEGAL) ways of protecting their work.

    After all lots of areas of the world do not really respect IP law anyway. That is NOT a moral judgement on IP – just a practical point.

    For example the Chinese regime may execute some person (and sell their body parts – most likely before executing them, the parts are fresher that way) for violating IP (or some such offence) – but really the regime does not actually care about IP (the dead person was just on the wrong side of a faction fight in the Party) and there will be a dozen other producers round the corner.

    It can not be beyond the wit of human beings to work out technical ways to protect their work.

  • Cal

    “It can not be beyond the wit of human beings to work out technical ways to protect their work.”

    Well, yes, But then it’s also not beyond the wit of human beings to work out ways to circumvent that protection.