“Fair Use!” Shouldn’t Be The Battle Cry of Pirates

***Disclaimers: Jim Sterling emphasizes that he does not advocate pirating Nintendo games; he  only argues that there is a moral justification for doing so. Furthermore, I don’t have all of the information on this matter, and I’ve tried to indicate when I’m inferring some facts. As always, this writing is NOT legal advice.***

Jim Sterling thinks it’s morally justified to pirate Nintendo’s games. I disagree.

As I understand it, Jim’s argument is that Nintendo abuses copyright law by failing to respect the legitimate activities of journalists like him. Jim feels that Nintendo’s failure to respect the legal rights of others permits others to ignore the legal rights of Nintendo.

The basic analysis of this claim comprises two questions: 1) Is Nintendo actually abusing copyright law? and 2) Does that abuse justify piracy? I think simple proportionality suggests that if a company fights with one person over a few pennies, responding by depriving the company of millions of dollars from millions of customers is probably not justified. So, I’ll just focus on the first question.

1)  Is Nintendo Abusing Copyright Law?

Probably not. As far as I can tell, Jim is angry that Nintendo issues ContentID strikes against Jim’s videos that incorporate some of Nintendo’s content (e.g., a few seconds of a trailer for a Nintendo game). Jim contends that his use of Nintendo’s content is protected under Fair Use.

A) ContentID: Still Not The Same As Appearing In Federal District Court

Nintendo is operating within YouTube’s copyright-themed pretend-cyber-law-court system. (I don’t know if they’ve issued DMCA takedowns, which would be an actual, real, legal action.) ContentID has a status similar to a retail store’s policies, in that it’s up to the private enterprise to design and operate the system pretty much however they like. Except in this case the law (DMCA) frames how a private company will design their system: If a party issues a warning about a copyright issue and the host service doesn’t remove it, and then the party goes to court with original poster over it, the party can collect from both the original poster AND the host. Thus, the host is really incentivized to make the choice for which the law will never penalize them, and just take down everything, every time anyone is unhappy. Maybe there are some complaints to levy against the DMCA for that (and against copyright law for incentivizing rights holders to protect their rights or risk losing them). But being slighted by a retail store’s return policy doesn’t justify torching the manager’s car.

B) Fair Use: Still Not A Magical Invocation

Jim’s claim to the Fair Use exception is not as clear as he hopes it is. Before the internet, fair use was a tiny, unheard of piece of an area of law that most citizens and attorneys didn’t think about very often. In the last 20 years, it has become the backbone of the amateur, self-starter internet entertainment and journalism industry. Despite getting burdened with all of that extra responsibility, the legal doctrine has not been expounded or clarified by courts or legislatures. The biggest case for fair use was Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. in 1994, which focused on the use of music for parody and explicitly stated that the law does not recognize a market for derivative works (which, I would argue, is very close to what most UGC on the internet is). (It would be great if someone could take a corporation like Nintendo to court to get a ruling on Fair Use in the context of YouTube journalism and criticism—though I’m sure that corporations will settle at outrageous expense in order to avoid losing the grey area that allows them to make these kinds of aggressive claims.)

Jim’s use of Nintendo’s content seems intuitively fair to most of us, but the analysis required by the law isn’t the intuition of the average citizen. The statute requires consideration of four separate factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The biggest problem for Jim in this analysis is that his videos are monetized, which means that his use of Nintendo’s content is not a non-profit endeavour. He also might use as much as 1/3 of a 3 minute trailer, and seeing the trailer in Jim’s video might make some people less likely to go watch the full trailer (though it could also have the opposite effect). The point is that there are some arguments to be made against the idea that Jim’s use of Nintendo’s content is beyond reproach. I think the balance of analysis goes in Jim’s favor for fair use, but I don’t think every single court in the US would rule that way- though more court rulings are moving in this direction. (I did not apply Lenz to this analysis because: 1) It applies to DMCA takedowns, not ContentID strikes, 2) There is a good-faith argument in consideration of fair use, as outlined above, and 3) It’s a Circuit ruling, rather than a Supreme Court ruling.)

Ultimately, Jim’s entire argument really hangs on this one point- that fair use gives him a right to do this, just like the first amendment would give him a right to run a newspaper or stand on a soap box in Central Park. As a matter of academic legal analysis, 17 USC 107 is not as robustly defined or developed as the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. Fair use is not just a legal way of saying “I used citations.”

I don’t want to pick on Jim too much, though. This case is just an example of the kind of faith that consumers and “Prosumers” and “content developers” and “social media dracoliches” put in the legal concept of fair use. It’s an incredibly misunderstood point of law, and it’s a point of law that is bearing more of a social and economic burden than it was ever originally designed to bear. Every year, ordinary intuitions about the meaning of “fair use” are driven further from the statutory language by cultural norms and everyday practices. In the end, no one seems to have a good grasp on this concept: Consumers and content creators think it is carte-blanche permission to use someone else’s work, and entertainment companies seem to think it’s a lie invented by hippies who just want free stuff.

2) “Legally Justified” Doesn’t Mean You’re Either Good or Smart

I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that Nintendo is acting within their legal rights. I think there’s a much stronger case to be made that Nintendo is acting against their economic interests. Copyright law is woefully outdated, and companies that cling to it too tightly will fall behind the times. One of the most useful aspects of copyright law is the right of the owner to not pursue actions against infringers. A smart company recognizes when infringements under the law can work in the interests of the company. Devolver Digital is a smart company.  Entertainment companies that are the most successful in steadfastly safeguarding their intellectual property will be among the least successful at recruiting, engaging, and retaining an audience.

Entertainers without audiences are dead.

I think there’s a better way for Jim (and his industry) to strike back at Nintendo: just leave them behind. Nintendo wants to live in the 20th century. Nintendo doesn’t want to participate in a world of Let’s Plays and livestreams and podcasts and social media and fan participation. There’s no shortage of other game companies and other games to play and discuss. It doesn’t help that Nintendo recycles only 2 or 3 major franchises and rarely comes up with any new ideas- and fails to execute them when they do. Nintendo needs all of these copyright infringements to survive, but they don’t know it. I don’t think they will learn that lesson until they get exactly what they want.

Watching Over Copyrights and Brands, Part II

You can protect a brand in a lot of ways. You can wave the law around like a sword, or hide behind it like a shield. Or you can not worry about using the law to your advantage and just make a product that others can’t top. One of the most fun things about law school was learning about all of the ways around the law – not breaking or circumventing it, but bridging over the gaps and cracks. Gaps and cracks happen most when the law hasn’t kept up with culture or technology, which is where I think the law is most exciting and interesting.

One of the most genius aspects of the overwhelming media hype-package of Overwatch is the way it manages concerns for copyright and trademark infringement. Blizzard achieved a level of branding and promotion that reduces their concerns for infringement. Overwatch is inimitable. That doesn’t make it invulnerable, but it might be the next best thing.

I. “Junk” from “Rats” Can’t Hurt the Bastion of the Marketplace

Even before I ever visited New York City, I knew that people sold cheap, counterfeit Rolexes on the streets. Having this explained to me as a child is also how I heard about Rolex, incidentally – and learned that it was different from Rolo. I always thought it was interesting that everyone knew about this black market for counterfeit goods, but no one seemed extremely worried. I think one reason for the lack of concern is that Rolex knows they won’t go out of business because of cheap knock-offs.

The best games, from the biggest studios­, have less to worry about when their IP is infringed or “heavily borrowed.” Dominating the games market is less about legal force than it is about marketing and loyalty. For one thing, Activision can’t claim copyright over the concept of a military-shooter and force other studios to not make games that compete with Call of Duty. So Activision makes Call of Duty a brand, because brands command loyalty. A given Call of Duty game may be worse in every respect to a competitor’s game, but fans will still choose the inferior product because of its franchise. (This is one of two reasons anyone rooted for the Cubs from 1945- 2015.) Blizzard created something powerful: a genuinely superior product that commands tremendous brand loyalty.

II. Just Palette-Swap For A New Game! Sounds Pharah- don’t you McRee?

Of course, just because no one can succeed in really ripping off Overwatch doesn’t mean people won’t try. League of Legends had this experience, also. Generally, game knockoffs like these are about as much of a concern as e-mails from dispossessed millionaire Nigerian princes. It’s a reprehensible practice that creates clutter and will accidentally trick some people, but they aren’t going to displace the original.

Companies can compete with Overwatch, but they can’t replace it. The entire experience is too complete and interconnected. No parasitic effort can trick a gamer into thinking they have the real deal, no one can deliver a superior version of the same experience, and no one pull more brand loyalty in online gaming.

III. Leaving your Trace[r] Mei Show that You’ve been a [Road]Hog, and You’ll Get No Mercy

Although Blizzard won’t feel the financial impact of the feeble efforts of clones, there are things that can still undermine the game. For example, a company could make an add-on that allows players to cheat at the game. Of course, a company called Bossland did exactly that. Rather than simply ban the players who use this add-on (per violations of EULA and ToS agreements), Blizzard has gone after the makers of the program – who are super proud of what they do.

I am a little bit surprised that they cite copyright infringement in their claim. This is interesting because it seems well outside the scope of traditional copyright law, but copyright law has been slowly evolving in the last decade. I think the technical details of how Bossland’s program interacts with Blizzard’s game could be essential to determining if applying copyright law is appropriate. After the recent ruling in Google v. Oracle, courts are more likely to find infringement just from making two programs talk. (The fair use defense that saved Google is not going to help Bossland.) In this case, it seems extremely likely that Bossland had to access and take (or manipulate) some of Blizzard’s code, which may be enough for infringement. But the ways that 3rd parties can interact with programs is still an interesting question for copyright law to resolve.

Regardless of the copyright claim, I think the other claims made by Blizzard are plenty strong enough to win, so I don’t think a court will end up going into detail about it.

Where Is The Fair Use? Where It Has Always Been.

Copyright law is not the most difficult area of law. Contracts, Torts, and Constitutional Law are massive categories that cover a lot of dense and complex content. However “easy” copyright might be, it is still an area of law with technicalities and layers of exceptions and conditions. Though copyright law doesn’t have the Rule Against Perpetuities or questions of Personal Jurisdiction, there are other complications: the triennial review process for 1201 research exceptions, or the federal preemption exemptions under the 1976 Copyright Act for pre-1972 recordings, for example.

Fair use is a sliver of copyright law that doesn’t seem complicated, but people can still get it wrong. In programming, brackets and semicolons matter if you want your program to run and not crash. In law, words and details matter if you want a favorable result. Being sloppy or lazy, generalizing broadly, or simplifying and condensing are all quick ways to lose in law. The fair use doctrine can feel easy for an educated adult to grasp, but there are important details in this tiny section of US law.

Fair Use Is Not Everywhere

Fair use is not a defense against the abuse of a copyright claim system. A huge part of the #WTFU discussion has been the complaint that takedown notices (or strikes) are issued by people who don’t have any claim to the copyright. This is a problem, but it is not a fair use problem. To use the fancy words: The copyright abuse of which most YouTube content contributors complain is a failure to meet the definitions in section 101, or to meet the cause of action available in section 501(b). Section 107 exceptions to copyright are not implicated. Therefore, there is no “fair use” claim.

Fair Use Is Not Pretending You Didn’t Do It

The true fair use part of #WTFU is that copyright holders issue strikes against critics who (arguably) deserve the protection of fair use. The unsatisfying answer is that this in accordance with the law. Section 107 of the United States Code is an exception to copyright infringement. Fair use is really a defense that says, “Yes, I am violating copyright, but I have an approved reason to do it.” Fair use admits copyright infringement. It does not replace copyright infringement. (The 9th Circuit in Lenz notwithstanding.)  In this case, the law is designed to defend accused infringers, not prevent the accusation.

Fair Use Is Not The Money Maker Yo’ Federal Statutes Gave Ya

Fair use is not meant to protect commercialized activity. Whether Nostalgia Critic is covered by fair use is an interesting question, because he’s “doing criticism,” but he’s also “doing entertainment” and monetizing (even if indirectly) the video. * Fair use is not a checklist that gets someone a total exemption from copyright infringement if any single box gets ticked. It is a balancing test, and all of the factors get considered. Balancing tests make for the least clear and predictable answers in law.

The Best Case For Fair Use On YouTube?

The strongest fair use argument is for “Let’s Play”-style content. Games are meant to be played. They are supposed to engage the decision-making faculties of the brain, in the same way that movies are meant to engage the sight and hearing of the audience. In an important way, filming someone playing a game is like hearing someone read a movie script. Not only is it transformative, but it changes the economic impact analysis. Uploading music or film to YouTube may well replace the original content, but I disagree that footage of someone else playing a game is a replacement for playing the game.** A court might not see things this way.

Situation Normal

The daily internet realities of copyright and trademark don’t match US law. The real problem is not that Google*** is failing to deliver on the legal promise of FAIR USE. The problem is that the law is more or less working as it’s written. There are questions to ask here, but I don’t think Google has those answers.

*There have always been book reviews written for profit, as well as parodies and commentaries of works. But not every case of journalism, parody, or fandom wins under a section 107 defense. And that’s why it’s a grey area- or at least more grey than people realize. It is clear that 17 USC 107 was never meant to support commercial entertainment enterprises, so it is a little off-kilter to hear people invoke it as essential to their livelihoods. However, it’s also clear that Title 17 of the USC was never meant to prohibit criticism or education.

**It is very important not to confuse “Let’s Play”-style content with eSports, because footage of someone else playing a game is a very good replacement for … that person playing that game.

***All of this ignores some relevant DMCA analysis and distinctions between US Federal Court and YouTube’s Content ID System.

The Long Road to an Ever-changing Future to Return Again to the Past: A 14th Century Solution to the 21st Century Digital Renaissance Problem of Law and Economics

This is my longest post yet, so I’ll give a tl;dr: Copyright law is immovable and unavoidable, and we keep talking about because things around it change constantly. Navigating copyright for the next century can’t look like successful navigation of the last century’s copyright- but it might look a lot like something from 7 centuries ago, and it might shift some of the focus from Copyright to its older sibling, Trademark.


I love the history of copyright because I can’t separate it from the history of technology. The core thrill of copyright law is the thrill of technological possibilities warping and toying with long-standing concepts of objects and economics.

It’s too bad I don’t have the graphic design tools to put a timeline up, with the legal progressions listed on one side and the technological milestones listed on the other side. But here’s a text version:

Laws and Philosophy:

The printing press was invented in 1440. Statute of Anne was passed in 1709.  Immanuel Kant wrote “On the Wrongfulness of the Unauthorized Publication of Books,” 1785. The US Constitution was written in 1787, with a clause establishing copyright as a federal law, followed by the copyright act of 1790. In 1831, 1909, 1962-74, 1976, and 1998, the US government passed modifications to US copyright law. Throughout the 20th century, photographs, moving pictures, radio broadcasts, phonographic records, videocassette tapes, and internet search caches are each brought face to face with copyright law.


1837 Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message. In 1878, a moving picture of a horse at a gallop is recorded. Gugliemo Marconi transmitted radio signals 1.5 miles in 1895. In 1926, Kenjiro Takayanagi created the first television receiver; Philo Farnsworth worked on an improved television the following year in 1927-1928.  Raymond Tomlinson sent the first e-mail on ARPANET in 1971. Tim Berners-Lee published the first web page in 1991. Microsoft released Windows Media DRM software in 1999; Napster also launched in 1999. YouTube launched in 2006. In 2014, a monkey took a selfie.

In February of 2016, YouTube channels and personalities asked: #WTFU. (Which spurred me to write about copyright yet again.)


The Times are Always Changin’.

It’s a long history to arrive at such a contentious and unsettled point. Contract, torts, and property law are so much more settled and uncontroversial (particularly in the ways that affect average citizens in our daily lives). Why has copyright always been a recurring issue? Why does it seem to be getting less settled and stable, despite the increase in attention from jurists and scholars?

The problems are not going away because their two main causes aren’t going away. Technological progress isn’t going away. The drive of human creativity isn’t going away. But if we can move copyright law through the end of the 20th century, we might be able to reconcile law and art.

From the Ayssirian Tablet to Bob Dylan, human civilization has repeatedly confronted the distance between “old” and “new.” Generations are defined by the space between them that cannot be bridged. History bears out Marshall McLuhan’s observation that, particularly with regard to new technology, “we march backwards into the future.” But when we arrive in the future, we have to grapple with its residents and their customs and culture. There are always “The New Kids.”

The New Kids: Popcorn Time and Social Media “Prosumers.”

One fine afternoon last year, Gabe and Tycho talked about how terrible piracy was, and how funny it was that the ESA was going to allow Social Media Mavens to attend their E3 show alongside the press. This whole podcast is about these two topics, and the two of them seem unaware that the same theme actually permeates the entire discussion. These are two examples of how new media and technology shape culture in a way that dictates how established industries must change – two industries in particular. Though one of these industries was established 83 years before the other, they both face upheaval from the effects of the internet.  The ubiquitous availability of devices that connect the world is the result of a collection of forces that has – and will – entirely change society.

In their comic, “The New Kids” are ostensibly the “Prosumers,” set to arrive at E3 and replace the Old Guard, Traditional-Role Press. But there’s a layer built into this that Mike and Jerry don’t even know about: “The New Kids” are the technologies and media and cultural shift that change ESA’s thinking about who should be at E3. The New Kids are all of the reasons Popcorn Time can exist and even thrive, and why AMC needs to think very fast about how to avoid the fate of Borders Books. A society always has New Kids. Progress doesn’t happen without New Kids.

One Reason Copyright Discussions Never End: They Go the Wrong Direction

Copyright affects a lot of people on the internet, so it gets a lot of attention and discussion. Too much has already been said about copyright law – most of it is pretty unhelpful. Comparisons to the theft of physical objects only invite a hyperfocus on the distinction between copying and theft, which is just misunderstanding the issue in a different way. Arguing one misunderstanding against another will not lead to a better solution, just a different, less obviously-bad problem.

I think a better analogy is in spaying the goose that lays the golden* egg, or gelding some equally bounteous and mythical stallion. Analogies about terminating reproductive capacities are sometimes slow to catch on, for some reason—but maybe we could at least speak of taking an engine out of a car.

Ultimately, I think all of these analogies are really the wrong route. The most significant and salient point is lost in the effort to analogize: the way that digital media allows the manipulation of art is entirely unlike what human civilization has seen so far. It just isn’t like tools or farm animals or agriculture or cars or anything else to which we are tempted to analogize. The digital replication and transmission of images, text, and sound is entirely unlike the things that have happened in last 5 millennia (or 20 millennia) of recorded human history.

The internet, and the bundle of technological developments that have come with computing and telecommunication, fundamentally changes the potentials for human expression and connection. A fruitful discussion about copyright needs to consider how we got to this point, and where we can, must, and mustn’t go next.


Technology Giveth, and Technology Taketh Away.

Justice is a tricky thing, because it seems so obviously favorable and desirable when it’s on your side. The raw, unrestrained, unadulterated, unfiltered, concentrated justice is very difficult and very dangerous – much of the role of the legal and political process is to temper that justice with reason and mercy.

There is an important truth in this discussion which does not get mentioned often enough: through new possibilities in efficiency and distribution, technology made artists and entertainers wealthier and more famous than they could have been without those advances. There was once a time when an actor had to perform every single time the actor wanted to be paid. Now, the actor performs, and then enjoys the rewards of technology repeating that actor’s performance—hundreds of thousands of times, for millions of people. (Not to mention the role that technology plays in editing or reusing art!) No content creators complained when the technology allowed them to make more money for less work, and they aren’t worried about any potential benefits they now reap from increased exposure and dissemination of their products.**

Reaping benefits from digital technology is no justification for the violation of copyrights, of course—but it is important to see the broad picture of how technology has interacted with artistic creation and distribution, and consider at least three important facets of this realization. First and foremost, no one wants to argue that the technology is inherently bad. Anyone concerned about the protection of their works has profited from the efficiency of some technology – even the same technology that threatens to harm them.

Second, it raises questions about what “fairness” really means in this scenario: as we move into the future, how should we evaluate the benefits for creators against the costs to the audience? Who ought to benefit from the powers of digital technology, and what harms and benefits should be considered? There is a very big picture here, and evaluations of fairness will change as one’s values narrow or expand the scope of one’s view. A good discussion can only happen when the whole picture is really considered.

Third, the power of new technology makes us consider what is now possible: the separation of fame from fortune. As I have discussed, the internet allows someone to become famous without becoming wealthy. In ages past, the opportunity to gain fame usually required a lot of money, but now, propagating art does not require the same mountain of resources that it once did. As we move toward new structures to support art and entertainment, fame will become a prerequisite for wealth.


The Way Forward: The Return to Patronage.

IndieGoGo launched in 2008. Kickstarter launched in 2009. GoFundMe launched in 2010.  Patreon launched in 2013. It’s harder to demonstrate mathematically, but I will make the wild assertion that game pre-orders have been more heavily promoted and used in the last 10 years than in the preceding 30 years. (I would love to know if pre-orders are proving more successful than DLC or MicroTransactions as a business model.)

When people pay the creator up front, the creator is less concerned about piracy, because the money is already guaranteed. Presumably, the farmer cares less about the goose that has already filled a basket with golden eggs than the one that is expected to eventually fill a basket.

In the world of patronage, reputation (sub-categories: hype, public relations, image, trust) is everything. Creators rely on their history of quality and integrity to secure funding for their next project. Creators who fail to deliver quality products, or who demonstrate shady or unsavory business practices, will suffer for their failings in their future endeavors. Some artists and companies are already carving out their reputations, through repeated successes, unfortunate failures, public statements, and choices.

Navigating copyright in the conditions of Digital Patronage will be shaped by a different power dynamic than the familiar, one-to-many, gate-kept, closely-owned media structures of the 20th century. Clutching at straws of hard-line, traditional copyright enforcement will not secure survival. Thriving will require earning trust through performance. Creators must give more consideration to next year’s potential earnings than to next quarter’s bottom line. They must create a functional, interactive, cooperative, collaborative relationship with their audience. The successful creators of the 21st century will be those who treasure their reputation as they will rely on the good will of others.

… And reputation and good will are what Trademark Law is all about…




*“By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas” (p. 558) Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises 471 U.S. 539 (1985)


** Those who manufactured physical products did not enjoy this same boon through the 20th century. Advances in 3d printing now give them a direct stake in the outcome of this transformation. There’s room for everyone at this party— I can’t wait for Physical Objects to show up with their partner, Patents!


“Come At Me, Copyright Bro” –Google Legal Team, 2015

Making Trades

Most competitive games involve the concept of trading. The idea of a trade is to risk some of your resources in order to deprive your opponent of some of their resources. This is part of a smaller skirmish which is only part of the overall game. The goal is to lose less than your opponent, thus putting you ahead. For most games, successful trades require a proficiency that comes with study and experience. It requires knowing both what you and your opponent are capable of and thereby knowing what will happen. The best players are not surprised by the outcomes of their choices; they know before they act how the exchange will unfold. When chess masters think about future moves, they are performing this kind of trading calculus.

Attorneys make the same kind of considerations. Particularly, those who litigate (though many attorneys don’t) use their knowledge and experience to predict the outcomes of various legal strategies. For a master attorney, the outcomes of legal choices are as unsurprising as the outcome of a chess move is for a chess master. Good attorneys don’t pick legal battles wildly or whimsically. They know in advance what the risks are. They know the possibilities and probabilities, the parameters and requirements.

I have no doubt that YouTube’s new fair use policy comes to us after many, many hours of careful thought by many legal experts. It is bold and brazen, but calculated and deliberate. It is not, strictly speaking, a defiance of a federal law. But this new policy does cast aside some of the protections offered by the law.

Picking A Skirmish

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) covers a wide range of topics, including questions of copyright infringement on the internet. To incentivize websites to host material, as well as to incentivize their cooperation with the policing of copyright infringement, the DMCA offers “Safe Harbor” protections to those websites that promptly take down those materials suspected or accused of copyright infringement. The system is called “notice and take down”: When someone gives a website notice about infringing material, the website simply needs to take it down. This is why so many US-based companies are quick to take down content when a copyright claim is filed: the compliance of the host protects them from a lawsuit for the copyright infringement.

For many years, YouTube took advantage of the protections offered by this law. When a copyright infringement claim was filed, YouTube promptly removed the content in question. It could often be uploaded again, with the content uploader asserting that the video did not infringe a copyright. The dispute would then be between the user and the [self-proclaimed] content owner, Google having excused (or protected) itself.

Google’s new policy is to reject some copyright complaints in certain cases. Those cases are those in which Google thinks that the video does not infringe copyright and is protected by the fair use doctrine. What sounds most impressive is that Google will even defend legal claims against those videos in court for up to 1 million dollars in legal costs. That isn’t actually as impressive as it sounds, because Google has left the Safe Harbor protections when it refuses to remove disputed content. In this act of defiance, Google is on the hook for copyright infringement as though they had been the ones to upload the video.*

The DMCA does not give license to content hosts to make judgments about fair use. That remains the purview of the courts. Google is relying on their legal team’s expertise to predict how a court would rule regarding a video. If they are wrong in this prediction, they could lose rather badly.

Uncertain Factors, Unpredictable Trades

The fair use doctrine is not extremely well-developed. American law schools require all students to pass certain courses, and many of these core courses** feature cases that are over 100 years old. One of the most famous cases in Contract Law is from 1854 (and from an English court, no less). The most famous cases on Fair Use are from the 1980s and 1990s, and they don’t give a thorough, detailed explication of this legal concept. They only apply fair use to some specific sets of facts.

Fair use is far less certain a legal doctrine than the two-hundred (or seven-hundred) year old precepts that guide areas of law such as property, tort, or contract. This makes it harder to predict the outcomes of taking some cases to court. There are no masters for making “trades” with fair use in court. It hasn’t gone to court enough times with different cases for anyone to know exactly what it’s capable of.

This is an incredibly exciting challenge that Google has thrown down. They have stepped out of their sanctuary. They have taken up a weapon that is uncertain and largely untested. They are risking substantial damage if they lose. And they really didn’t have to do any of it. They could have stayed safe and sound, risk-free, and followed the pattern of notice and take down. They didn’t need to change anything. I can only guess what might motivate them to make the world a better place for others. Perhaps Google decided that if they are going to control the world, they want it to be a world more worthy of their control.

(Or maybe Google is throwing their weight behind fair use now that it is it the next defense for Java APIs after a ruling earlier this year that Oracle can copyright the structure, sequence, and organization of an API.)


*A little over-simplified to avoid a discussion about the difference between joint and several liability.

**Copyright law is not a required course, and isn’t always even offered as a full subject by itself—making fair use a small part of a lesser-known area of law.


The Transition From Art to Entertainment: Copyright’s SystemFailure()

Transistor is really, really beautiful. Through every minute of play, I truly enjoyed the graphics, the game design, the story, the characters, the artwork—I even have the soundtrack on my iPod. It has some astonishing aesthetic quality. All of that said, I did not particularly enjoy playing it. The combat was awkward and annoying, the customization feature was poorly explained, and I never felt like I’d really accomplished anything more than some bothersome errands.

Transistor succeeds magnificently as a work of art. It fails as a piece of entertainment.

I’ve talked about games as art before, but I think a distinction between art and entertainment can help explain the perverse twists of copyright law we see today. One analysis of the current state of copyright is that it has not kept up with time, and even the DMCA provisions fail to bring copyright law fully into the digital era.


Entertainment is marked by an ultimate aim at financial gain. Entertainment needs money. For this reason, it is often symbiotic with advertising. It is frequently exploitative because it needs attention to thrive. It fails when ignored and succeeds when it sells.

Art wants to be enjoyed (or sometimes it only wants to express its artist). Art is probably the origin of entertainment, but art does not require the financial success that entertainment seeks. Art can be evaluated on aesthetic terms of beauty or expression, rather than ticket sales or ad revenue.*


Copyright law is meant for entertainment, not art. Art does not have the same legal concerns that entertainment has because it does not have the same financial concerns. In the US, copyright law focuses largely on economic questions, not moral questions (as it is in Europe). The treatment of damages (money you can get if you win in court) in copyright law makes sense for large entertainment entities (e.g., movie studios or record labels) in the 20th century, though it makes hardly any sense when applied to small-scale artists and typical citizens in the 21st century.**

Most copyright laws are enforced at the discretion of the rights holder, and artists often decline to enforce their rights the way that entertainment companies do (though one reason could be the cost of enforcing those rights, rather than a desire to enforce them).


Judges have always made a pointed effort not to make aesthetic judgments while applying the law. This means that both bad art and bad entertainment get the same legal rights. It also means that the law will not distinguish between art and entertainment.

Understanding this difference between art and entertainment makes sense of why an area of law is applied vigorously by some people and ignored by others. It also explains why smaller artists are less favorable toward many parts of copyright law while large studios are stronger proponents of strong copyright law.

Transistor is a good case study for illustrating this distinction. It is a game made and produced as entertainment, but it acts and feels more like art. I’m sure Supergiant studio would protect it as entertainment, as would SuperGiant Games and distribution services like Steam. And under US law, that’s fine. Just because something is artistic doesn’t mean it should be subject to piracy or hampered from monetization. But it’s worth remembering that the copyright law isn’t about protecting the artistic integrity or beauty of Transistor’s sounds and images—it’s all about protecting its potential to maximize profits.

Too many discussions around copyright law and reform fail to address this fundamental difference in the genus of media. Recognizing this distinction could make discussions about copyright (and copyright reform) much more clear and productive, and would help in presenting the issues at stake.

*Obviously, these traits can overlap and diverge: a work can be artistic and commercially successful, and a person can have goals of creating something beautiful and charging lots of money for it. However, a work can be evaluated independently under both of these categories.

** One of the exciting effects of networked digital technology is that it made the entire area of copyright law suddenly relevant to the bulk of the population (who previously had very little reason to think about it).

Public Performance, Performing Public.

TwitchPlaysPokemon” has a morbidly fascinating quality. I was never very in to Pokemon- despite my best efforts-, but TPP is like watching one of those funny animal GIFs, except with much longer watchability.

I’ve found Twitch.tv really interesting, both culturally and legally. I’m still unreasonably elated about the idea of videogames as a professional spectator sport, but the potential for legal issues for Twitch’s service (EULA and ToS agreements not withstanding) is deeply fascinating. I think TPP is a great example of what I mean. I am going to be overly broad in this analysis to make a more general point about how new uses of new technology challenges copyright law. A more thorough explication of the details of this issue can be found here.

The core legal ISSUE I want to pick on is the potential to claim that Twitch Plays Pokemon is a copyright infringement. Of course, copyright law is aimed primarily at prohibiting the distribution of unauthorized copies of a work to the public. Copyright law also prohibits unauthorized works based on an original work. These are called “derivative works.” Derivative works can be permitted either if the original author gives permission, or if the new work is fair use.

THE ANALYSIS hinges on how we define TwitchPlaysPokemon. If TPP is a way to allow thousands of unauthorized users to use a product, it’s definitely infringement. This is the argument that it’s basically Napster for Pokemon- you log on, you play a game made and owned by Nintendo that you didn’t pay Nintendo to play.

In contrast, we might define TPP as a new experiment in gaming perspectives; a sort of social performance art project. We might highlight the difference between playing Pokemon, alone and on your own personal device, and playing Pokemon with thousands of other simultaneous users, with confusing and incoherent gameplay. Seen this way, TPP is derived from Pokemon, but is Transformative: something new and original has been added that changes the fundamental character of the copyrighted work. This transformative quality (if it exists), combined with the point that TPP is a non-commercial project (at least to some extent; let us suppose that the creator is not monetizing views), is a strong case for finding an exception to the derivative works rule under fair use (see Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, 1988).

THE POINT is that I personally favor the argument that TPP is transformative, even though most legal minds seem likely to agree that it is just an infringing derivative work. I think there’s good reason for lawyers to think that way. If it went to court, I think the law favors Nintendo’s side. But this is why I think TPP (and Twitch, generally) is an interesting innovation: it raises some new twists on IP law, and the outcomes aren’t always clear, obvious, or incontrovertible.

Of course, the BUSINESS bottom line is that Nintendo probably doesn’t want to raise any of these legal questions or file any kind of legal action because the free advertising is amazing. Pokemon probably hasn’t gotten this much buzz in at least a decade- why fight that?