Not-So Intellectual Propriety

Is it me, or does the ferocity with which the battle to protect intellectual property make the entire situation…well, less than intellectual?

This story broke over the weekend. In essence, someone in a meeting in L.A. heard some commotion, looked out of a window, and saw what was apparently a scene from Transformers 3 being filmed. He shot a quick video with his phone, and uploaded it to YouTube. The motion picture studio complained of copyright violation, and pressured YouTube to subsequently take down the video.

So, by this logic, filming the people filming the movie is now a copyright violation? Explain this to me, please?

Copyright law exists (in Dave language) to prevent unauthorized copies of a work being made. When I copyright a project, that is to prevent someone from making copies and distributing them without my permission, or from claiming it as their own. The second is always the primary motivator for me: I register my work for either copyright protection, or under a Creative Commons license, in order to prevent someone from claiming my work as their own. As recent attempts to lock down every conceivable form of media imaginable in insanely counter-productive ways by groups such as the RIAA, MPAA, and many book publishers has shown us of late, however, this can be taken to such an extreme that lawful users have difficulty legally obtaining copies of the work. 

A slightly grey area exists in the so-called doctrine of fair use, which permits certain uses of copyrighted material without permission, but not for profit, such as in the case of educators using material for instructional examples in their classrooms. When you use someone’s material as support in an argument in an academic paper, for example, you are using it under fair use, citing the source on your bibliography page.

Here’s the issue: I don’t understand how one could claim that the guy filming the filming of this movie scene was attempting to steal part of the plot from the Transformers 3 screenplay (after all, he apparently identified it as exactly that, thus effectively citing the source). In fact, I see nothing here that would indicate that he was even distributing a part of the movie without permission. He was making a brief, obviously amateur video of a movie crew shooting part of a film on a public street. How do you copyright the act of creating part of a creative work in public? That could easily have been a different movie, and the segment he posted to YouTube could well end up on the cutting room floor. By the same logic, if I encountered a famous novelist in a coffee shop writing his next great work, and snapped a quick picture with my phone for Twitter, could I then be sued for copyright violation if a few words on his laptop screen happened to end up in the photo?

Paranoia is a sad thing. We live in an age of YouTube, Flickr, and multiple other ways in which video and photos of average individuals walking through public areas may end up on the Internet. We are filmed at intersections by traffic cameras frequently. We may end up in the background of someone’s vacation photo. If anything, privacy issues may be at stake. Perhaps the film crew could object to their images being uploaded without their consent, but on the grounds of privacy, not copyright. Even on privacy grounds, I doubt this would be a viable claim. The only way to ensure you will not end up on the Internet today is to not leave your home.

I’ve mused here before that the only way to be true to one’s art may be to not make a living creating said art. All too often, corporations are permitted to own the art, or at least it’s production channels, in order for the artist to make any sort of income from their work. When corporations fear that their precious profits may be lost, this sort of over-reaction becomes rampant, making the world a smaller place for everyone. In fact, clips such as these could well result in better box office performance, as some will go to the movie in order to see if the scene they watched on YouTube is in the final product.

So, hold on. I’m about to do something crazy:

There. I’ve filmed myself writing. Now I can sue myself for copyright violation, right? I’ve infringed on my own intellectual property!!

Oh, wait. I suppose that wouldn’t make much sense.

Would it?

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