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The Copyright ‘Bots are Coming for Us

The great thing about digital technology is how easy it makes sharing information. Or maybe that’s the bad thing about it, depending on your perspective.

The BBC reported that if you use the filesharing site Bittorrent, then you’re probably being monitored by one or more monitoring firms, especially if you’re sharing “top 100” content, whatever that might be at the time.

I think I’m safe because I only use Bittorrent to download old episodes of Dad’s Army and Falconcrest, but the rest of you had better watch out.

The peculiar thing about the firms is that they’re not really doing anything with the data. I would expect massive blackmail attempts, which would significantly up the creepiness level of some areas of the Internet.

However, I don’t think that would surpass the creepiness that happened during the online streaming of the Hugo Awards event. This story [via LISNews] is both ridiculous and creepy at the same time.

The awards ceremony was being streamed online by Ustream, which used a company called Vobile to monitor content for copyright infringement. During the awards, library fanboy Neil Gaiman gave his acceptance speech for an award for a Doctor Who script. Before the speech, a few clips from Doctor Who were shown. Just as he started the speech, the stream was cut and viewers were informed: “Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement.”

You see, even though the clips had been approved for the awards ceremony, and even though showing brief clips of anything is almost certainly within fair use, the Vobile robots decided they knew better than the BBC, the Hugo Awards, Worldcon, and U.S. copyright law.

There was some protest, and the CEO of Ustream apologized and ceased using Vobile until the mess could be straightened out. However, we got a glimpse of the dark technological future coming upon us, a world where corporations can and do monitor everything, not just to glean our habits so they can place enticing ads before us, but to control and stop any actions they don’t like without even proving they’re illegal.

After all, copyright wasn’t infringed. No one was harmed in any way, except the viewers of the Hugo Awards stream, and they don’t count because they’re sci-fi fans. Sci-fi fans should expect this sort dystopian outcome. It’s Skynet meets the Empire.

But the robots came anyway, and we can probably expect them much more in the future. Think of all the fun they’ll have.

Streaming events, YouTube, Bittorrent, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Eventually the robots will make it to places like Scribd, Facebook, Pinterest and every other place people post content.

Pinterest is a great example, come to think of it. From what I can tell, people are posting all sorts of copyrighted images mixed in with the even more tedious content. Someday, the robots will come for Pinterest, and we’ll all chant, “and first they came for Worldcon.”

Given the conglomeration of media entities over the past couple of decades, it won’t even take much coordination. 20 corporations coming together to send ‘bots all over the Internet shutting down potential copyright violators would wreak a lot of havoc on the Internet.

But that’s not legal, you might say. After all, Ustream hired Vobile to shut down content on its own site. It’s not legal now, but before the ‘bots come truckloads of money will pour into Congress to pass appropriate copyright legislation. Mickey Mouse will like the ‘bots.

Such legislation will skip due process and make the alleged offenders guilty until proven innocent. It’ll also legalize the ‘bots and the entire Internet will be in the de facto control of a small number of media corporations who, by the way, probably won’t let libraries lend any of their content.

It’s a brave new world.



  1. I hope that doesn’t happen to Pinterest. I love that site! If what you predict actually happens, the internet would become so lame… unless you pay to play everything.

  2. Downton Abbey 3 is on next Sunday in the UK, not in the US until January…

  3. I’m struck with two thoughts about these situations. The first is that in addition to the problems you listed, it’s dangerous to make enforcement of a supposedly changeable law so entrenched into the fabric of our digital experience. That will just be one more drastic upheaval required if we ever intend to change or fix the current copyright mess. Secondly, I hate that so many forms of “copyright enforcement” depend on cripply the manner or technology through which the law is broken rather than actually addressing the law-breaking. For example, BitTorrent as a protocol does not inherently break any copyright laws, though it does potentially make it way easier. But most IP enforcement makes using BitTorrent in general a crime via ISP tracking.

  4. OMG I’m so glad I found you!

    I received a letter today from a photographer demanding $35,000 in damages for posting several of his wedding gown fashion photos on Pinterest!


    He warned me. not. to. pin.

    It’s really 35 THOUSAND dollars.

  5. Michelle S. says:

    For those worried about using Pinterest, here’s an interesting blog post about fair use, why you probably won’t be sued, and how you can protect yourself against being sued:

  6. The ‘bots’ are not the problem, they are just a symptom of a larger one: copyright is broken. Existing laws have been far outpaced by the world moving on, and the ones that have actually been updated are heavily tilted in favor of the corporations making more money, rather than fairness to everyone.

  7. Well, as shown in _The Two Faces of Tomorrow_, there are two safe choices: we can have no robots, or we can have smart robots. Stupid, ill-informed robots are an accident waiting to happen.

    Continuing legal education could help more, too. I’ve seen any number of licenses which must have been drafted by someone who had no idea that the material was to be *given away to all comers*. I would have laughed myself silly, if those licenses hadn’t made the products totally unusable in the setting we wanted to use them.

    *Evil* robots, on the other hand, generate self-limiting behavior. If it’s too hard to reuse certain cultural artifacts in long-accepted ways, people will lose interest in them and express their thoughts in terms of other, more useful artifacts, *provided they know that more liberal terms are available*. If we’re not allowed to talk about Mickey Mouse without paying a fee, Mickey will fade from public consciousness and be replaced by a character that’s not taboo. His owners will fade too.

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