***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.***
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.