How copyright rules silenced Romney

A great real-life example of how copyright can become censorship
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, pauses while speaking to a group of former Salt Lake City Olympics committee members, marking the tenth anniversary of the games, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
President Barack Obama sings before speaking at a campaign event on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

Copyright is too often described as a “divisive” issue. The truth is that aside from some people who are passionate about copyright reform and some industries that are passionate about copyright enforcement, there are many, many more people who couldn’t care less. To this bewildered majority, the “copyfight” can seem a bizarre and geeky policy debate locked in time, forever repeating talking points from 2000’s Napster vs. Metallica fracas.

Those of us on the reform side of the debate are quick to counter such indifference with a passionate plea to our fellow citizens: “This isn’t about piracy,” we say. “It’s about freedom!” And our fellow citizens sigh, because even though they do not see how copyright is about freedom, they know that we will tell them.

The ensuing explanations too often rely on slippery-slope arguments set in a hypothetical future where copyright is used to shackle babies. But after last week, we can use a more tangible and immediate example to preach the gospel. Last week, copyright impeded democracy in America.

It began with Mitt Romney, singing. The Obama campaign used footage of Romney belting out “America the Beautiful” ( a public domain tune) in a clever attack ad which juxtaposed Romney’s patriotic warbling with information about all the jobs he has supposedly shipped overseas as a businessman and as a legislator. Romney countered with an ad that used Obama’s rendition of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together with stats about favours Obama is accused of having paid to fundraisers and cronies. Both ads demonstrated conclusively that politicians sing at their own peril.

Then along came copyright. BMG sent YouTube a DMCA takedown notice, claiming that the Romney team’s ad violated their ownership of the Al Green tune. Blogs like Politico were quick to point out that clips of Obama covering Al Green had been online for months. It was only when Romney used the clip to make a political point that BMG took action.

The Romney campaign said that their use of the audio was covered under “fair use,” which allows exceptions to copyright specifically for things like political commentary. They happen to be 100 per cent right about that, and their ad will inevitably be re-posted to YouTube.

But that will take weeks. Under America’s “Notice and Takedown” copyright system, all you need to do to get content removed from the Internet is to give a website “Notice” that you think the content violates your copyright, and they’ll go ahead with an immediate “Takedown” of the content until the matter is resolved.

Current copyright law doesn’t gives BMG the right to block a piece of political propaganda and strip Mitt Romney of his fair use rights. It is a flaw in the enforcement legislation that essentially gives BMG them the power to void Romney’s rights. It’s a limitation of political freedom under the guise of copyright rules–the kind of thing everybody should care about.

Follow Jesse Brown on Twitter @JesseBrown