Do copyright laws protect our tweets? The truth about stolen content

By Annie Epstein, Contributor

Social media is a hotbed of creativity, whether it’s a stunning photo of your dinner on Instagram, an adorable YouTube video of baby’s first steps or ahilarious tweet about the Kardashians.

Internet personality and comedian Josh Ostrovsky, also known as “The Fat Jewish,” is often lauded for his jokes and has become a pop culture icon because of his social media presence. He has more than 5.9 million followers on Instagram, 512,000 friends on Facebook and 260,000 followers on Twitter. He sold two scripted shows to Amazon and Comedy Central that he will write and star in, and he has a book deal. His numerous brand sponsorships are reportedly valued at up to $6,000 a post, according to Rolling Stone.

When social media users have large followings, there’s greater pressure to produce unique content that has the potential to go viral. This pressure might lead a social media user to copy content from others and pass it off as his or her own, which is what Ostrovsky reportedly did. Many users have criticized the star for not obtaining permission from the original user or giving them credit.

“To see someone this devoid of talent get rich off of almost exclusively stolen material while the people having their stuff stolen struggle is infuriating,” Ben Rosen, senior creative at BuzzFeed and victim of Ostrovsky’s joke stealing, told Rolling Stone.

The outcry over Ostrovsky’s reported joke stealing has spawned social experiments testing user accountability. On Sept. 13, Twitter user Jonathan Sun, a Ph.D. student at MIT, tweeted a screenshot of fake Google search results with the full names of celebrities Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith to explain the origins of their children Willow and Jaden’s names. The screenshot showed Smith’s name as “Willard Oliver Smith, Jr.” and Pinkett Smith’s as “Jada Naomi Pinkett Smith.” Smith’s real middle name is Carroll, and Pinkett Smith’s is Koren.

The tweet has since been favorited 26,315 times and had 20,823 retweets—many of which claimed users “already knew that.” Users also tried to pass his tweet off as their own, including parody accounts World Star Daily and World Star Laughs, which have 17,000 and 138,000 followers, respectively.

As a result of constant complaints of stolen content, social media platforms are reacting with quicker responses to copyright infringement reports and deleting offending content, but some see these actions as suppressants of free speech. 

Social networks react

Some social networks are taking a stand against stealing other users’ content and going beyond their legal obligation. Sites are improving methods of cracking down on stolen content and better monitoring smaller intellectual property infringements. Facebook, for example, announced plans to develop a video-matching technology after some users stole videos from YouTube and posted them to Facebook.

Twitter community managers are moderating tweets as well, removing stolen copyrighted media related to the entertainment industry as well as stolen tweets. In the past six months, Twitter has seen an 11 percent increase in takedown notices and withheld more than 47,800 tweets. Removed tweets include pirated clips of copyrighted movies, songs used without permission, and stolen jokes originally posted by comedians.

Twitter is responding with swift removal of reported plagiarism and leading the efforts to combat joke stealers. Twitter’s new language regarding withheld tweets that refer to individual users as copyright holders and removal of tweets in deference of original authors means that infringing tweets are more visible and gives users more autonomy in regulating intellectual property. 

The rules of the Internet 

In terms of laws enforcing copyright online, all websites are subject to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), legislation meant to provide updated laws to address copyright in the technological age. Generally speaking, DMCA is geared toward major companies’ interests rather than those of individual users, and protecting platforms from getting *** for copyright infringement. Under the law, digital platforms must remove the offending material, but the policing of content is left to copyright holders, meaning the users. 

“The idea behind DMCA was for owners of copyright to feel comfortable distributing their works online, but also for online [platforms] to not to be [fully] liable for the infringements of their users,” since users are the ones reporting stolen content, according to Annemarie Bridy, professor of law at the University of Idaho.

As a result of the law, companies have become the gatekeepers of content. Users say the monitoring is impeding free speech and have complained ofunfair takedown notices.

“In the last couple weeks, I’ve heard of Facebook pages with over a million likes being taken down with no explanation why or how to get them back,” said Mari Smith, a social media strategist. “We really are at the mercy of these companies.” 

The Computer and Communications Industry Association summed up the users’ feelings in its published recommendations for copyright reform:“Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain.”

Fighting takedown abuse

There is one caveat in DMCA that has the potential to slow the onslaught of copyright violation notices from major companies: fair use. Fair use in copyright law is copying brief excerpts of copyright material in criticism, news reporting, teaching and research without needing permission from or payment to the copyright holder. 

“Often what happens is the corporate rights owner tends to be more aggressive in enforcing their rights because they’re more economically staked,” Bridy said, explaining that big companies fear copyrighted material can’t be monetized if it’s free on the Internet. “The problem comes when they’re overly aggressive in enforcing their rights and they make someone take down content without considering whether it’s fair use.”

In 2007, a mother posted a YouTube video of her child dancing to a Prince song, only to have the video removed for copyright infringement. Lenz *** Universal Music and has been embroiled in a legal battle for the past eight years. Lenz found support from Google, Twitter and Tumblr, while major players in the entertainment industry like the Motion Picture Association of America supported Universal.On Sept. 14 Lenz won her appeal, and the judge ruled that Universal must consider fair use before issuing takedown notices — widely considered a victory for individual users.

Following this ruling, users may see changes in the stringency of copyright enforcement in music and media. Steps for the future may include changes to DMCA itself, as tech companies push for stronger repercussions for those abusing the takedown system and attempting to censor content.

Currently, under DMCA, there is an appeal process to restore unfairly removed content. Users can send a counter notice if they believe their content was not in violation of copyright, like in the case of Lenz, who argued her video fell under the fair use umbrella of DMCA.

“The problem with fair use is it’s hard to know whether a particular use is fair, so users generally are too afraid to file counter notices — if they even know that they can file counter notices,” Bridy said. “And online platforms are a little reluctant to encourage users to file because there are legal consequences and they don’t want to expose their users to legal liability.” 

Rise of Internet etiquette

Twitter watchdog @Plagiarismbad argues the issue of stolen tweets goes beyond copyright: “Even if it turns out it isn’t technically illegal to steal tweets, it is still ethically and morally wrong.”

For everyday users, those without the means to take on a cadre of corporate lawyers patrolling for copyright infringement, the issue of idea ownership comes down to etiquette.

“Asking for permission goes a long way,” Smith noted. “There are blog owners that will completely reblog an article with images, and while it might be linked back, they’re doing it without permission.” 

Until more legislation is established, it’s best for users to adhere to the cultural rules of the Internet and, as Smith describes it, “Facebook etiquette.” 

“Giving credit matters to our moral sense; the copyright law doesn’t care about attribution,” Bridy said. “With respect to attribution — people think that it’s a copyright point, but really it’s an ethics point. Just because it’s not a right that copyright will enforce or the law will enforce, doesn’t mean it’s not an important norm.”