Giving copyright the $5m finger

Check this out.

bo.lt is a startup in what seems to have become the classic west coast model.

Silly domain name? Check!

Bullshit mission statement? Check!

SF address and previous startup credentials Check!

Big money funding? Check!

Business model entirely dependent on other peoples content? Check!

It’s really extraordinary. Let me quote from the website:

Grab the pages that interest you. Cut out what is distracting, corporate, and irrelevant. Drop in images and text that can make the page come alive again. And share what you have done. Content wants to move in the social world. Give it a boost.

We have created software that helps *you* make the web more interesting to the people you care about. With BO.LT we have taken the shackles off. It’s your turn.

So let me put that another way.

Copy content. Amend it however you like. Change the meaning if you want. Remove the branding, links, context, design (or don’t, even if you have changed the meaning and message of the content). Add some stuff of your own. Re-publish it somewhere else.

Kind of an encyclopaedia of what copyright is meant to prevent. This is a product of the crazy internet utopia that so many west coast startup people seem to live in, believing it to be real. Act as if the world is the way we want it to and maybe it will come true!

There’s a reason why this stuff is illegal. In the case of bo.lt lots of them. I find it hard to fathom that it has to be spelled out. All you have to do is put yourself in the position of whoever created a page or site or piece of content in the first place.

Are they necessarily happy for anyone else to use it however they want? Do they mind if someone alters the content but makes it look like they didn’t? Do they mind if it’s commercially exploited by someone else? Do they care if someone’s marketing department wants to tweak their article to make it a bit more favourable? Do they mind if their brand is mis-used whimsically by anyone who happens to swing by bo.lt?

Perhaps they would like to have a say. Perhaps they would like people to ask first. Perhaps they want to be able to say no if they don’t like it. All these rights are given to them by the law, yet here someone has set up a business as if the law simply didn’t exist.

I know that these things go on. I have spent years stopping the most egregious mis-uses of content and brands which I have been managing. But I haven’t often seen quite such a blatant attempt to commercialise what to me is quite clearly illegal activity (bo.lt is a “freemium” service – prices for corporate users start at $2000 per month).

So, if this seems so clearly illegal, how are they getting away with it? Why on earth did someone put $5m into it?

Well, it seems that is all part of the game. Whether something is legal or moral doesn’t really seem much of a consideration. And in the case of bo.lt they reckon the law has given them a killer get-out-of-jail card. They are protected, they say, by the “safe harbour” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Nothing their users do is their problem until someone tells them about it. Never mind their role in facilitating and hosting the infringement – as long as someone else actually did the deed of initiating it, they’re OK.

You can tell how much they care about copyright by looking at their terms and conditions.

If you’re a user you have to agree – by accepting the terms of service – that you will not:

violate or infringe the copyrights, rights of privacy or publicity, or any other rights of any person;

which you will, of course, almost always be doing unless you’re using it to adapt your own owned or licenced content or webpage which would seem a little odd. There may certainly be non-infringing uses of the service but they seem unlikely to be the majority. They have to put that little thing in their terms, to at least try to stay on the right side of the DMCA, but note the informality of it. Nothing done to enforce or check compliance, just a sentence buried in the small print nobody ever reads.

Compare and contrast to what you have to do if your copyright has been infringed:

It is Boltnet’s policy to respond promptly to claims of copyright infringement and to remove or block access to any infringing material as described below. If you believe that any content or pages served by the BO.LT network contains infringing material or property, then please notify us as soon as possible.

If you believe that your work is the subject of copyright infringement and appears on our Site, Services or any pages on the BO.LT network, please provide Boltnet’s designated agent the following information:

  • A physical or electronic signature of a person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.
  • Identification of the copyrighted work claimed to have been infringed, or, if multiple works at a single online site are covered by a single notification, a full list of such works at that site.
  • Identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity and that is to be removed or access to which is to be disabled at the Site, and information reasonably sufficient to permit Boltnet to locate the material.
  • Information sufficient to permit Boltnet to contact you as the complaining party, such as an address, telephone number, and, if available, an electronic mail address at which you may be contacted.
  • A statement that you have a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.
  • A statement that the information in the notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury, that you are authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.

Boltnet’s agent for notice of claims of copyright infringement on this Site can be reached as follows:

By Mail: Boltnet.Inc,

Attn: Ben Smith

3 Pier, Suite 105

San Francisco, CA 94111

By Phone: 415.742.8418

By E-mail: copyrightclaims@boltnet.com

While they’re prepared to take their users implicit word for it that they’re not infringing anyone’s copyright – no need even for a statement “under penalty of perjury” to confirm – despite that being almost vanishingly unlikely in a huge proportion of cases, they are a little less inclined to take a copyright owner’s word for it when their work has been infringed.

So while anyone can effect an infringement by simply pasting a URL into the bo.lt website, the work of a second or two, anyone wanting to protect their work has to not only actively track it down but also provide a slew of paperwork and scary legal documentation to get it removed.

Even after that, it would seem the best you can hope for is that they’ll take down or block access to the content. Nothing there about damages, identifying the user they’re hiding behind to get their DMCA protection, helping right any wrongs. Just the minimum the law demands of them.

It’s a sort of distillation of the contempt with which parts of the online world regard other peoples property. They see it as a free resource, a route to a swift $5m in “series A funding”. The idea that the person who owns something might have something to say about it, or that what they’re doing is simply legally and morally wrong, seems not to come into it.

For sure, it confirms what is already obvious: the DMCA is bad law and gives rise to bad outcomes. Somehow, though, it is worse than that. It seems so cynical, showing a metaphorical finger to copyright and laughing all the way to the bank. I honestly thought it was a spoof. I hope it is. But sadly it seems real.

Footnote: while they seem quite laissez faire about other peoples copyrights, bo.lt are a bit more protective of their own, bringing the full force of the law to bear on anyone who does to their content the thing that they will happily do to anyone else’s

From their terms of service again (emphasis added by me):

Unless otherwise specified in these Terms of Service, all information and screens appearing on this Site, including documents, services, site design, text, graphics, logos, images and icons, as well as the arrangement thereof, are the sole property of Boltnet, Copyright 2010 Boltnet, Inc.. All rights not expressly granted herein are reserved. Except as otherwise required or limited by applicable law, any reproduction, distribution, modification, retransmission, or publication of any copyrighted material is strictly prohibited without the express written consent of the copyright owner or licensor. You agree not to copy, reverse engineer, or otherwise infringe on our complete right, title, and interest to the business processes, technology, interfaces, designs, or other proprietary property contained in the Boltnet Site or Service.

Ha! Stick their own URL into their service and wait for the knock on the door. Perhaps I’ll try it!

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