copyright as gavel

I'm pilfering a phrase from Siva Vaidhyanathan, who wrote an excellent article called "Copyright as Cudgel," noting how producers often use copyright infringement charges as a political weapon. here's a variation on the theme: the Republican Study Group, a subcommittee of House Republicans, had to apologize yesterday for suggesting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had violated copyright. Her office had posted clips to YouTube of C-SPAN footage of the debate about Bush's Iraq "surge" plan, then embedded them into her website, "The Gavel". As it turns out, the footage shown on C-SPAN is shot by Congressional cameras, and C-SPAN enjoys no copyright over it; as government information it is in the public domain. The GOP claimed they had received conflicting information from C-SPAN, but I suspect they saw what they thought was an opportunity to hit the new Democratic Speaker of the House in the ribs.

This is a bit different than the kind of use, or misuse, of copyright that Siva was talking about; copyright is also a cudgel when a copyright owner sends out cease-and-desist letters that threaten DMCA lawsuits, even if the use being made is arguably within the user's rights, and depend on the user not daring to get in an expensive court battle with a major corporation. This is the "chilling effect" that comes with such doctrines. But here we have a curious use of copyright, the desire to embarass someone for having potentially infringed. I must say, its a risky move: even if C-SPAN did have copyright over the footage, Pelosi's office could have gotten their authorization to use it, or have made a reasonable fair use claim. It strikes me as being a product of the copyright paradigm we're in at the moment, where (a) television footage available on YouTube must obviously be illegally posted there, (b) video with a channel's logo on it is obviously theirs, (c) use of copyrighted work is obviously infringement, and (d) the accusation of copyright infringement will turn people against the infringer. All four of these assumptions are flawed, but the certainty with which they are commonly held is palpable.

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