SFWA issues mistakenly broad DMCA takedown notice—unwittingly harming sci-fi writers such as Cory Doctorow
August 31, 2007 | 7:14 pm
A few weeks ago, a DMCA takedown notice was issued by Andrew Burt in his capacity as Vice President of SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Association. The notice concerned many documents on Scribd.com, a site where people can post documents much as they might post photographs to Flickr. The notice alleged broad infringement of copyrights, and resulted in the standard 10-day takedown mandated by the pertinent provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The DMCA’s takedown provision protects Internet service providers such as websites from being sued for copyright violation provided that they act right away to remove infringing material when it is called to their attention with a notice. This means that websites do not have to check everything that is uploaded to make sure it does not violate copyright, which in turn means that infringing material (such as a scanned copy of an Isaac Asimov novel, for instance) could easily be uploaded there. In this case, removing the material is certainly warranted.
The problem is that the notice resulted in the removal of many works that were uploaded by their own authors, such as bibliographies and works of criticism that only mentioned Isaac Asimov books, and the electronic edition of an SF magazine called Ray Gun Revival—and Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was released under a Creative Commons license that expressly permitted such distribution. It also targeted many works allegedly by authors whom SFWA had no authority to represent.
I first saw this story on BoingBoing, where Cory Doctorow blasted Burt’s takedown notice for making him look like an Indian giver. It was subsequently covered on Making Light. This Ars Technica story covers most of the salient facts in a somewhat more neutral tone than much of the discussion that has followed—and of course most of those discussing it on Slashdot do not attempt to be neutral at all.
One interesting point not mentioned in the Ars Technica article is that Burt claimed in his email that the list of infringing material he provided “wasn’t idle musing, but a DMCA notice”—but as others have pointed out in the Making Light discussion, the email did not meet all the provisions of a legal takedown notice, as it did not include specific statements (concerning belief the material was infringing and the fact that they were legally authorized to act as agents of those infringed against) required for it to be one.
In a comment made in response to the Ray Gun Revival editor’s blog post about the incident, SFWA President Michael Capobianco apologized for the magazine’s inclusion. “SFWA is trying to help scribd develop a policy that would do something about all the copyright violations that are posted there, and it appears that your magazines were inadvertently added,” he wrote.
In a draft of a response circulated privately for comment but reposted without permission to BoingBoing, Capobianco stated, “Despite what may have been said or implied, SFWA did not send DMCA takedown notices for the works that were removed from scribd.com.” However, Charlie Stross quickly added that “that draft really shouldn’t be repeated in public. It was a draft for comment, got commented on real good, and has already been withdrawn and redrafted—and it isn’t even public yet.” Nonetheless, the fact that this response was even floated as an idea shows an interesting lack of communication between the SFWA President and Vice President, if he was not even aware that Burt’s email specifically claimed to be a takedown notice.
In an official statement on SFWA’s website, Capobianco says that in response to member complaints of scribd copyright violations, a list of violations was generated. “Unfortunately, this list was flawed and the results were not checked.” He promises that “this kind of error will not happen again.”
Ironically, Andrew Burt was responsible for the first real unfettered access I had to USENET, back in the early 1990s when my telnet access was through a CP/CMS machine, and so telnet into Nyx.net (formerly nyx.cs.du.edu) was all cluttered with ANSI codes and improper scrolling, yet still readable. aburt’s Nyx site was where I went to read the anime newsgroup rec.arts.anime that a friend had told me about, and where I was inducted into online writing circles where we wrote our tales and shared our stories freely on the Internet. Though defunct now, alt.pub.dragons-inn and alt.pub.havens-rest were really jumping back in the day.
And Burt was also a more direct champion of writing circles, in his work with Critters. According to the article, he believed that espousing some of the principles of the Open Source movement in writing would lead to more and better writers. It is strange that he should take such a scattershot action against perceived copyright violations now.