Freedom in the 21st Century of Social Media
By Roger Paradiso
We have all heard about copyright infringement and the new human right on the table called data rights. Part two of this series with Ruth Vitale and her team at CreativeFuture will go into these issues for us.
With the advent of the internet and the monetization of the internet by large monopolistic companies like Facebook and Google, among others, we need to understand the game they are playing and how we can protect ourselves. Villagers, being in a community of artists, must understand the new copyright laws and how to protect ourselves. Mailing a copy of your work to yourself and not opening it is no longer considered proper by the Copyright Office. I recommend to everyone that when they finish a work or are about to perform a work to please contact the Copyright office and to go on their site at https://www.copyright.gov/. There is a lot of information and FAQ’s so that everyone can gain a basic understanding. They do have a phone number listed on the site and they are very helpful, but it is frequently busy, so you must be patient. Of course, if you can afford an entertainment lawyer, he or she is always someone you should have onboard when significant money is at stake.
“Data rights are human rights” is a statement you will hear a lot these days. Very simply it states that your person, your likeness, is owned by you and not by anyone else. They must get your permission to use your person and likeness and compensation is negotiable. Right now, the pirates, the foreign governments, and the corporations are having a party using, without compensation or written permission, our art and our persons.
And that is where organizations and people like Ruth Vitale and CreativeFuture advocate for artists to government policymakers to respect our rights. Ruth was in Washington, D.C., meeting Senators and Representatives, when I caught up with her. The following is an interview I conducted with her.
ROGER PARADISO: Can you give us a short introduction to copyright protection and why it is important to everyone? I was shocked when I read that many young people don’t feel it is important.
RUTH VITALE: Copyright is an important part of our laws, enshrined in the Constitution, that guarantees each and every American exclusive ownership over each and every original work they create. When you make something in America—be it a film or a photograph or a book or a piece of music—you, and only you, get to decide what happens to it next. That might mean, among other things, selling it (along with the copyright) to someone else, duplicating it somehow and distributing it, putting it up for free somewhere, or sticking it in a box under your bed. The point is: the choice over what happens to your work is yours, and if anyone else tries to make that choice for you—without your permission—then they are in violation of your copyright.
You may hear from anti-copyright activists that copyright somehow suppresses people’s freedom. These naysayers tend to be people who think the world should be able to access copyrighted works for free, without permission, and use them however they wish—often on the internet. But copyright is the definition of freedom. It gives every individual the freedom to create without worry, and the freedom to dictate their creation’s own destiny.
Now, how is this important to everyone? Well, copyright ensures artists are paid fairly for their work. Without that assurance, they would have no incentive to keep creating, and America’s robust arts and culture would be much less vibrant. Whether you are a creative person yourself or not, I think we can all agree that life is measurably better when great creative minds have an incentive to create. We all benefit from the films, music, books, video games, photographs, and other creative works that enrich our culture and just… make life more fun and interesting.
RP: How are Google and Facebook infringing on copyright?
RV: You would be surprised how much infringement of copyrighted creative works (AKA piracy) happens right on Google’s and Facebook’s own platforms every minute of every day. And, these companies are turning a blind eye to this crime every minute of every day. Google and Facebook aren’t perpetrating this infringement themselves—their users are—but they benefit from it, they know about it, and they should do more about it.
Take YouTube, for example, a sibling of Google. They are the biggest video platform in the world. It is also a platform that is rife with piracy. Any user, at any time, can upload a copyrighted work without permission, and the site does virtually nothing to stop them. Once the work is up, Google is required by law to respond to a legitimate takedown notice from the copyright owner—but only if and when they receive one. Hopefully, the copyright owner has the resources to constantly monitor YouTube (and the rest of the worldwide internet) for illegal uploads of their work. If they don’t, and Google or YouTube never receive a notice, they don’t have to do a darn thing. The pirated work sits there for as long as it’s allowed to, and if the illegal uploader runs ads against it, YouTube profits from the stolen video and shares the proceeds with the thief! This broken system, enabled by a “safe harbor” in a law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or the DMCA, allows Google to ignore piracy, in search results and on YouTube, and make billions in profits from other people’s creative works.
RP: Why isn’t Congress going after Google and Facebook for the infringement happening on their platforms?
RV: We’re actually in an interesting time regarding Congress’ approach to this issue. Remember the DMCA law I mentioned in the previous answer? The one that allows companies like Google and Facebook to ignore copyright infringement unless specifically asked to do otherwise? Well, that law was crafted in 1998, when the internet industry was barely an industry, Google was a few months’ old and YouTube and Facebook were not even glints in their founders’ eyes. It was created to help fledgling internet companies to grow robustly, and not be bogged down in legal action over the behavior of users over which they had no control.
The DMCA was written with good intentions. Lawmakers had no idea, at the time, that companies like Google and Facebook would come along and grow into corporate behemoths worth billions of dollars. The future of the internet was unfathomable then. This idea of sending notices might have made sense when these companies were tiny, but today Google alone receives more than 900 million DMCA takedown notices every YEAR. That is just untenable, and it’s time for this 22-year-old law to be updated. We must put the onus of piracy enforcement on the internet companies who are facilitating these crimes.
Congress has finally started to realize this, and they are holding a year-long series of hearings to reevaluate the DMCA and see what needs to happen to make this law more effective. In fact, I’m testifying at the next hearing!
RP: What is CreativeFuture doing to protect copyright?
RV: To be clear, CreativeFuture is not an enforcement agency. We advocate for stronger copyright protections and speak to U.S. policymakers about the economic harms cause by piracy. We advocate for the rights of people in the creative communities to be fairly compensated for their work, and that entails curbing rampant digital piracy.
We have many initiatives in service of our pro-copyright agenda. Along with my EVP of External Affairs and Public Policy, I travel frequently to Washington, D.C., to work with lawmakers on policies that keep copyright strong and robust. We also work to fight anti-copyright forces who are constantly lobbying in favor of our country’s largest internet platforms.
Additionally, we help publish op-eds for influential creatives in highly visible publications. Our blog is a home for content ranging from rebuttals to anti-copyright messaging to insightful interviews with creatives engaged in the struggle to make a living doing what they love. We like to think of our captivating content as the “gateway drug” that attracts people who might want to know more about copyright, piracy, and the way they impact the creative works they love.
RP: What are data rights?
RV: This is not really our purview, Roger, but data rights, as I understand them, are the rights of all citizens to control their own data in the online space. Companies like Google and Facebook have become the behemoths they are by blanketly collecting the data of their billions of users and using it to sell advertising in numbers that boggle the mind. Users have little control over this, and they should. We all deserve the right to control our own data.
RP: How do Google and Facebook abuse our data?
RV: Again, this isn’t really our lane, but as I said, these huge platforms don’t really give users much of a choice over what data gets collected and how it gets used. It’s possible to opt out of having your data collected, but it’s not particularly easy to do, and most people just don’t bother. Shouldn’t users have to “opt in” for our data to be collected and used to generate billions of dollars in advertising?
RP: Why isn’t the Congress shutting them down?
RV: Nobody really wants to “shut down” Google and Facebook, but it would be great if we could all have more agency over if, where, and how our data gets collected and used. Lawmakers have been working on this problem. California, for instance, passed a fairly sweeping privacy bill last year. The problem is, implementation of this Bill for users is actually quite complicated, and most people haven’t bothered with applying the law to their own personal data collection, from what I can tell.
One way to make these companies more accountable, not just for their data collection practices but for other harms they have perpetrated or enabled—such as copyright infringement—is to give them more competition. Right now, these are monopolies and no other company can rise up and challenge them with a better product. Governments around the world are focused on antitrust measures targeting these companies. Fines have even been assessed, but these companies are so wealthy the fines barely make a dent. Many leaders have called for breaking up these monopolies. We shall see.
RP: What can a Villager do to protect themselves against these large monopolies?
RV: Everyone can take more agency in their lives. We can all educate ourselves how our data gets collected and how it is used, and we can take steps to limit this collection. We have to be vigilant, because the problem is vast and never-ending. These internet companies have already made many changes in their business practices because of backlash from users and lawmakers alike. We should all continue educating ourselves about the ways in which these companies make money—by selling ads against other people’s content using our data to make money from advertising. It’s time that we take back our privacy. And, it’s time we work together to stop the rampant theft of our creative works on these platforms!