Cornell Law School Logo - white on transparent background
SSRN

Vol. 106, Issue 2

Cornell Law Review Online

Copyright Silencing

Cathay Y. N. Smith, Associate Professor of Law, University of Montana Blewett School of Law. Thanks to Aman Gebru, Jennifer Sturiale, Jacob Victor, Xiyin Tang, for comments and Nicholson Price and Alex Roberts for organizing the 2020 virtual JIPSA summer workshop. Thanks also to Orly Lobel and her students at University of San Diego School of Law for inviting me to talk about this Essay and Tiger King. Finally, thank you to the diligent law review editors at Cornell Law Review.

, , , , , ,

22 Jan 2021

Copyright has been weaponized to suppress speech,1 See David S. Olson, First Amendment Based Copyright Misuse, 52 WILLIAM & MARY L. REV. 537, 547–48 (2010) (describing examples of “the Estate of James Joyce’s history of aggressive use of copyright claims to stifle the speech of others”). frustrate competition, 2 See, e.g., Adi Robertson, The EFF is Suing over one of the Worst US Copyright Rules, THE VERGE (July 21, 2016), https://www.theverge.com/2016/7/21/12248454/eff-files-copyright-lawsuit-section-1201-anti-circumvention-rules [https://perma.cc/S2NP-S2T2]; Lasercomb America, Inc. v. Reynolds, 911 F.2d 970, 978 (4th Cir. 1990) (including in copyright license agreement an overreaching provision barring licensee from creating competing products for 99 years). punish third parties,3 See Steven Asarch, Pewdiepie and Alinity Drama Explained: What’s a Copy Strike?, NEWSWEEK (May 23, 2018), https://www.newsweek.com/pewdiepie-alinity-twitch-copy-strike-youtube-drama-reddit-941546 [https://perma.cc/MD8F-N24J] (Twitch streamer Alinity purportedly copyright striked YouTuber Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg’s channel for calling Alinity a “Twitch thot”). and silence criticism and erase facts.4 Eric Goldman & Jessica Silbey, Copyright’s Memory Hole, 2019 BYU L. REV. 929, 951-57 (2020) (describing instances where individuals acquire copyright to already-published content, including negative consumer reviews, in order to assert copyright to erase the reviews and suppress their dissemination). This Essay highlights one form of copyright weaponization I call “copyright silencing.” Copyright silencing is a form of copyright weaponization where owners assert copyrights to silence criticism or suppress facts instead of to protect copyright owners’ legitimate interests5 This Essay does not define “legitimate interests” of copyright owners. Some commentators have argued that copyright law is a law of incentives and the only legitimate interests copyright owners have in their works are market and economic interests or utilitarian incentive-based interests. Other commentators, however, recognize that laws—including copyright law—are not necessarily for a singular purpose, and that copyright owners have other interests, including autonomy, moral, reputational, and privacy, in their copyright works. The validity of the issues examined and the arguments set forth in this Essay are not predicated on settling upon a singular definition of copyright’s legitimate interests. in their works. This Essay identifies recent or notable instances of copyright silencing, examines the harm copyright silencing perpetrates, and explains why it is increasingly difficult to stop the assertion of copyright to silence, suppress, and censor facts, information, and criticism. 

In March 2020, as Americans sheltered in their homes to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them found themselves suffering from another form of fever—Tiger King fever. By now, most people have watched or, at a minimum, have heard of Netflix’s limited docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Released by Netflix on March 20, 2020, Tiger King—a documentary series following the extraordinary life and subsequent downfall of zookeeper Joe Exotic a.k.a. Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage né Schreibvogel—became an overnight sensation with 34.3 million viewers over its first ten days of release.6TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (Netflix 2020) https://www.netflix.com/title/81115994 [https://perma.cc/SNF4-QSL6] (last visited June 15, 2020); Tiger King, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_King#cite_note-2 [https://perma.cc/K9YK-A49Y] (last visited June 15, 2020). In episode four, the series introduced audiences to Exotic’s intellectual property troubles, including a copyright infringement suit Exotic’s archenemy, Carol Baskin, owner of Big Cat Rescue, filed against Exotic and his company. The copyright infringement suit was based on Exotic’s unauthorized sharing of a photograph featuring three Big Cat Rescue employees holding bloody rabbit carcasses. Exotic shared the photograph in order to criticize Big Cat Rescue’s hypocrisy and to expose Big Cat Rescue’s volunteers’ perceived cruelty. In response, Big Cat Rescue acquired the copyright to the photograph and sued Exotic for copyright infringement in order to conceal the photograph and silence his criticism. This copyright infringement suit, along with other claims Baskin filed against Exotic, ended up bankrupting Exotic and eventually caused him to lose his zoo.7David Lee, Foe of ‘Tiger King’ Zookeeper Granted Oklahoma Property, COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE (June 1, 2020), https://www.courthousenews.com/foe-of-tiger-king-zookeeper-granted-oklahoma-property/ [https://perma.cc/2MQS-2CC4]; Abid Rahman, ‘Tiger King’: Joe Exotic Loses Zoo to Carol Baskin in Court Ruling, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (June 1, 2020), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/carole-baskin-awarded-joe-exotics-zoo-court-ruling-1296769 [https://perma.cc/8XVU-52PJ].

This Essay identifies the copyright infringement lawsuit featured in Tiger King as an example of a growing threat in copyright law, namely, copyright owners using copyrights to silence critics and censor public dissemination of facts and information. Other notable examples of copyright silencing include Dr. Drew’s recent use of copyright to censor criticism of his previous public opinions making light of COVID-19, Harvey Weinstein’s use of copyright to suppress investigation into his sexual exploitations and misconducts, and Tea Party-favorite political-candidate Sharron Angle’s use of copyright to erase evidence of her former ultra-conservative views on education and social security. Copyright silencing is detrimental to free speech and public discourse, and is contrary to the purpose of copyright law to encourage the dissemination of ideas and information. Copyright silencing can also harm legitimate copyright claims, distort copyright rules, and erase history. However, because copyright silencing frequently goes unnoticed when putative infringers capitulate to demand letters to remove the offending materials or ISPs remove the materials pursuant to DMCA takedown notices, because motivations of copyright owners asserting rights can be difficult to determine or can overlap with interests such as privacy interests, and because of practical limitations on legal solutions like fair use, copyright misuse, and anti-SLAPP laws, copyright silencing is increasingly difficult to defeat. 

To read more, please click here: Copyright Silencing.

References

References
1  See David S. Olson, First Amendment Based Copyright Misuse, 52 WILLIAM & MARY L. REV. 537, 547–48 (2010) (describing examples of “the Estate of James Joyce’s history of aggressive use of copyright claims to stifle the speech of others”).
2 See, e.g., Adi Robertson, The EFF is Suing over one of the Worst US Copyright Rules, THE VERGE (July 21, 2016), https://www.theverge.com/2016/7/21/12248454/eff-files-copyright-lawsuit-section-1201-anti-circumvention-rules [https://perma.cc/S2NP-S2T2]; Lasercomb America, Inc. v. Reynolds, 911 F.2d 970, 978 (4th Cir. 1990) (including in copyright license agreement an overreaching provision barring licensee from creating competing products for 99 years).
3  See Steven Asarch, Pewdiepie and Alinity Drama Explained: What’s a Copy Strike?, NEWSWEEK (May 23, 2018), https://www.newsweek.com/pewdiepie-alinity-twitch-copy-strike-youtube-drama-reddit-941546 [https://perma.cc/MD8F-N24J] (Twitch streamer Alinity purportedly copyright striked YouTuber Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg’s channel for calling Alinity a “Twitch thot”).
4  Eric Goldman & Jessica Silbey, Copyright’s Memory Hole, 2019 BYU L. REV. 929, 951-57 (2020) (describing instances where individuals acquire copyright to already-published content, including negative consumer reviews, in order to assert copyright to erase the reviews and suppress their dissemination).
5  This Essay does not define “legitimate interests” of copyright owners. Some commentators have argued that copyright law is a law of incentives and the only legitimate interests copyright owners have in their works are market and economic interests or utilitarian incentive-based interests. Other commentators, however, recognize that laws—including copyright law—are not necessarily for a singular purpose, and that copyright owners have other interests, including autonomy, moral, reputational, and privacy, in their copyright works. The validity of the issues examined and the arguments set forth in this Essay are not predicated on settling upon a singular definition of copyright’s legitimate interests.
6 TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (Netflix 2020) https://www.netflix.com/title/81115994 [https://perma.cc/SNF4-QSL6] (last visited June 15, 2020); Tiger King, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_King#cite_note-2 [https://perma.cc/K9YK-A49Y] (last visited June 15, 2020).
7 David Lee, Foe of ‘Tiger King’ Zookeeper Granted Oklahoma Property, COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE (June 1, 2020), https://www.courthousenews.com/foe-of-tiger-king-zookeeper-granted-oklahoma-property/ [https://perma.cc/2MQS-2CC4]; Abid Rahman, ‘Tiger King’: Joe Exotic Loses Zoo to Carol Baskin in Court Ruling, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (June 1, 2020), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/carole-baskin-awarded-joe-exotics-zoo-court-ruling-1296769 [https://perma.cc/8XVU-52PJ].
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––