20 Hollow Copyright Claims

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”
 — United States Constitution, Article I, § 8, Clause 8

Entire professions now exist which add no value to society other than their attempts to take others’ money. Certain industries are particularly rife with this behavior (high-speed trading and pharmaceutical pricing being good examples), but almost all aspects of our culture, from arts to sciences and everything in between, are pervaded by profiteering.

Much has already been written on the inherit problems with intellectual property, copyright, and patents, as well as the shrinking public domain and seemingly perpetual copyrights that undermine the benefits of sharing ideas. Below are some contemporary examples—by no means the most egregious incidents that have occurred—of flawed mindsets regarding copyrights, trademarks, and patents.

20. Home Taping Is Killing What?

Before BitTorrent and Napster, the entertainment industry fought another purported threat: the video cassette recorder. Testifying before congress in 1982, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America stated, “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

19. The Streisand Effect

When she found a picture of her mansion on an obscure policy site about coastal erosion, Barbara Streisand sued to have it removed. Not only did the lawsuit fail, but the intimidation tactic had the opposite effect of making the photograph famous.

There are analogies here to the larger issues of what copyright restrictions are warranted in a digital age. As Lawrence Lessig wrote, “some of the ways in which we might protect authors will have unintended consequences for the cultural environment, much like DDT had for the natural environment.”

18. How Old Are You Now?

“Happy Birthday to You” is based on a nineteenth-century melody, but that didn’t stop Warner from collecting royalties on it up until last year, when a district judge ruled that the song was in the public domain.

17. We finally really did it…

“It’s killing my business,” stated the photographer whose equipment was used for the famous monkey selfie, after the image was posted without his permission.

16. Echo & the Moneymen

Remixing others’ musical work has gotten the likes of Vanilla Ice and Robin Thicke in hot water, but the legal case of John Fogerty contains a peculiar twist: he was sued by his old label for copying himself.

15. Mighty Casey Has [Restricted Content]

According to Major League Baseball, you can’t tell me who won the last World Series because you’re forbidden from delivering an account of the game’s telecast without their express written consent.

14. One Cash Cow to Rule Them All

Professor Tolkien died over forty years ago, but that hasn’t stopped his estate from raking in money from his writings about Middle Earth. Legal threats have been made over everything from unauthorized online games to pub names.

13. ICANN.sucks

Typo squatting and other illegal tactics of registering domains containing trademark brand names are common (Princeton Review once owned kaplan.com). Besides buying out existing owners, people and companies can petition the governing body to take over a website they feel is rightfully theirs.

A redirection to the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital wasn’t enough to keep madonna.com from being seized by Madonna the singer, while a gamer who went by the handle “Sting” successfully defended his right to keep sting.com from the musician of the same name.

12. Gaming the System

Video game companies have evolved considerably since the days of Atari and arcades. The DLC and F2P models have had an especially devastating effect on gameplay. What’s left are businesses trying to own basic words such as “Candy” and “Let’s Play” rather than making meaningful gaming experiences.

11. They’re Called Illusions, Michael

Magic tricks have long been closely guarded trade secrets, complete with a magician’s code to not spoil how they’re done. In 2014, Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) successfully sued for the protection of one of his copyrighted tricks.

10. From the Home Office in Litigiousness

David Letterman’s move to CBS was a contentious one, complete with the claim that his signature Top Ten Lists were the “intellectual property of NBC” and couldn’t be done on the new show.

9. Where Silence is Leased

Most of us are likely familiar with John Cage’s experimental piece 4'33", although few have probably bought it on the iTunes store. However, a lawsuit was settled over a copycat piece containing one minute of silence.

8. I Fought the Law (by Printing It)

Although federal publications are not subject to copyright protection, Carl Malamud’s project to publish the annotated Georgia statues got him sued by the state for his efforts to free the law.

7. Copyright is for the Birds

Companies that hold copyrights regularly check YouTube for infringing materials, which are then removed. The problem is, their zealousness often results in the censorship of false matches, and these errors are difficult to remedy.

6. Dewey, Cheetham & Howe

The Dewey Decimal System is a proprietary classification system used at many public libraries in the United States. A “Library Hotel” that organizes floors by this structure found itself slapped with a lawsuit for trademark infringement which was later settled.

5. You Click It You Buy It

Amazon owns, and has enforced and licensed, a patent for the concept of instantly buying something online.

4. 123 Fake Street

For years, mapmakers have purposefully inserted imperfections into their craftsmanship to serve as bait to catch plagiarists. Thankfully, trap streets are afforded thin protection in the United States as uncopyrightable “non-facts.”

3. I Have a Profit Motive

You can’t legally watch Martin Luther King’s public “I Have a Dream” speech for free, due to the King family’s efforts to monetize his legacy.

2. In United States, FBI Arrests You

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act includes provisions against reverse engineering software. Consequentially, a magic marker can be used as an illegal copy-protection circumvention tool. And did you know illegal numbers now exist? Cory Doctorow, speaking about DRM, sums up the technology quite well: “Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your benefit.”

The DMCA also led to Russian citizen Dmitry Sklyarov being arrested and jailed for writing code that bypassed Adobe’s e-book restrictions. The case went to court, where the jury found him not guilty.

1. Scholars as Shysters

It’s an historic anomaly that, in an era of digital publishing and institutional repositories, so many academic authors willfully embargo their work, usually by signing over their copyrights to publishers who restrict access. There has been some progress toward updating this archaic system, thanks to both government support for unlocking funded research and author boycotts of overpriced journals.


The people who made cave paintings didn’t do so for the royalties. For thousands of years, we were all hobbyists. Participatory culture grew and thrived amidst oral traditions and other mashups. Artists and scientists were not compensated for their work, at least not in the financial sense that they and their descendants are today.

Imagine if Aristotle’s or Newton’s writings and their derivatives were kept under lock and key, or if Shakespeare and Mozart had great-grandchildren who could prohibit their ancestors’ creations from being performed. What other losses and missed opportunities for advances are we now experiencing because someone’s work sits behind a paywall?

Copyright, in its current form, is an impediment to my job as a librarian. Focusing on profits from sharing knowledge needs to go the way of trial by combat. Technology now gives you the ability to spread ideas like never before. Why not return the favor and do so freely?

See also

Check out my other posts for related commentary.