Censorship and Freedom of Speech

Of heavy handed over-reactions and internet blackouts

Today Frederik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Peter Sunde Kolmsioppi and Carl Lundstorm, the founders of Swedish file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay, are on trial on charges of copyright theft.

The site is being taken to court by several media firms, including Sony and Warner Bros., who claim that their profits are being harmed by the site and that it has been particularly harmful in distributing copyrighted works prior to their official release.

The defendants argue that their site is completely legal because none of the content is hosted on their computer servers and are seeking to portray themselves as digital libertarians.

A couple of thoughts spring to mind here, the first of which is to wonder how long this is going to take. Whatever the result of this case, there will be appeals and, I would guess, were talking several years before a final decision is arrived at. If, as is likely, the site remains up, running and tracking torrents for the whole of this time, the media companies are not doing a great deal to protect their bottom line right now.

The second, and more significant, thought is: What is the point? At the end of the day, The Pirate Bay is just a torrent tracker. The actual content is scattered across peoples PCs worldwide so, while shutting down the site may cause a temporary blip in filesharing activity, it isnt ultimately going to make any difference.

People will always seek to share content and always have done. Although technologies like BitTorrent and sites like The Pirate Bay makes this easier, the impulse to share is a human one and isnt going to go away. As such, targetting the ways in which people share content is as fruitless as trying to manufacture self-destructing books.

But if we travel a little further afield, things get even worse. I was half-way through writing this post when I happened to glance at Twitter and noticed that a lot of people were talking about a Blackout Campaign to protest against New Zealands Guilt Upon Accusation law that calls for internet disconnection based on accusations of copyright infringement without a trial and without any evidence held up to court scrutiny. This law is due to come into effect on February 28th unless the countrys parliament takes action rather rapidly.

The campaign is being organised by The Creative Freedom Foundation which was founded in 2008 by artists and technologists Bronwyn Holloway-Smith and Matthew Holloway in response to Copyright law and its detrimental effect on creativity, the economy, and public rights.

The Foundation advocates on behalf of artists whose creative freedom is affected by major Governmental decisions made in their name, and in the name of protecting creativity. The Foundation represents the views of artists who dont want injustices in Copyright law done in their name, and who want to find better ways to work.

I shall leave the final words of this post to Nathan Torkington who very succinctly sums up pretty much everything I was planning to say:

The Internet has created new opportunities for artists: new opportunities to reach fans and new opportunities to earn a living. In the past, artists like us had to reach fans through companies that relied on old technology. These companies are now being forced to find new ways of doing business but instead of embracing the Internet theyre fighting it.

They fight progress by demanding changes to Copyright laws. In effect, they say, lock down the Internet so our 1960s way of doing business can still work in 2010. In doing so, they erode civil liberties and hold back the discovery of the new business models. They want to control the Internet just as movie companies wanted to control the VCR when it was first released. But, unlike then, courts and lawmakers are not safeguarding our interests.

Its time for artists to stand up and say: enough! The greatest problem that we artists face is obscurity, not piracy. Americas record companies have resorted to releasing malware and suing people without computers, alienating fans rather than figuring out how to turn them into satisfied customers. This cannot continue.

The Internet offers enormous opportunity for New Zealands artists to break out of obscurity and sell directly to millions of waiting fans. But if the record and movie companies get their way, snooping on innocent peoples Internet connections and acting outside the legal system, we risk training fans to have the same cynical attitude in return: to hell with them.

We dont endorse counterfeiting, mass duplication stores. These people hurt artists, robbing us of legitimate sales. But when an individual fan wants our work enough to go through the hassle of finding a way to pirate it online, we see that as an opportunity. Its an opportunity to meet the fan, to connect them to the artist, and ultimately for the artist to be rewarded for their work. This opportunity will be squandered in the world of restrictions, distrust, and civil rights abuses that the middlemen companies want to institutionalise.

A storm in a naked teacup

School administrators in Wisconsin have found themselves having to re-evaluate (via @neilhimself ) their policy on showing films in class after the parent of a high school pupil got hot under the collar about an animated nude scene in the 2007 film Beowulf.

There is a scene, just over a minute long, featuring a naked, animated Angelina Jolie which Eric Hjortness, the parent in question, found so erotic that he rushed off to complain.

The film has a PG-13 rating in the US and, according to the relevant district policy, this means that Hjortness is entitled to withdraw his daughter from the screening and the school is obliged to provide an alternative assignment for her. All reasonable enough so far, but heres where it gets a bit silly:

Hjortness, who was supported by his wife, Gail, and another parent at the meeting, said their daughter was told alternative assignments involve writing and, Why should she get punished for not going to the movie?

Writing is a punishment? Since when? And how has Hjortness managed to get this far in life without realising that literacy is quite a good skill to have.

More than anything else, this story reminds me of the Bill Hicks story about the waffle waitress.

And, for the record, the scene that so excited Mr Hjortness is under the fold.

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Will the Dangerous Pictures Act kill the UK comics industry?

Comic Shop Voice (via io9) thinks so.

If youve been living under a rock – or not paying attention to the antics of the UK government - for the past few months, the Dangerous Pictures Act – or the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, to give it its fluffier sounding and more tabloid friendly official title – makes it a criminal offence to possess an “extreme pornographic image”, the definition of which is vague, to say the least.

Because this is a minefield for the law it then falls on the Police to enforce it, and it is their judgement that could lead to a prosecution. We COULD get to a point where the police could legitimately visit your home or workplace, and sanctioned by an un-elected magistrate or judge go through your collection and if they find any comic book that they feel will cause sexual arousal or displays extreme violence then they could arrest you.

And what is frightening about this law is that it gives them carte blanche to invade our lives, to shut down our comic shops and ultimately it could lead to censorship of books and films as well.

And before you point out that these are just fictional stories told with pictures, the government has already closed that particular loophole.

Freedom of icky speech

Its a month old, but this post on Neil Gaimans blog provides a calm and articulate discussion of why freedom of speech matters even if you find that you dont like the specific speech exercising the freedom.

Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means youre going to have to stand up for stuff you dont believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you dont, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one persons obscenity is another persons art.

Because if you dont stand up for the stuff you dont like, when they come for the stuff you do like, youve already lost.

Go read the rest.

Its Only a Movie

Wes Cravens 1972 film, The Last House on the Left has had a chequered history on the UK, to say the least, starting with an outright ban in 1974 when the film was first submitted for a BBFC rating. With the rise of home video in the 1980s, the film made it – briefly – to UK shores until the “video nasties” moral panic started to bite and the film was banned again by the 1984 Video Recordings Act.

The film had built a reputation for itself and, as the 1980s became the 1990s, critics had started to laud the film as an important piece of work. This led, in 2000, to the film being submitted to the BBFC for certification yet again and, once again, being refused.

In 2002, Blue Underground submitted the film and were told that they had to make 16 seconds worth of cuts in order to achieve an 18 certificate. The video distributor appealed and, as part of the appeal, called in Mark Kermode to make a case for the films historical importance. Famously, the Video Appeals Committee not only upheld the original cuts, but doubled them.

Finally, on 17th March 2008, the BBFC classified the film, uncut, for video release. And now, as Twitch reports, Metrodome Distribution have uncovered a further 5 minutes and 27 seconds of previously unseen footage which is included on the 3 Disc Ultimate Edition, released on Monday 20th October.

Crack open a bottle of Krug while you watch the original trailer.

Quote of the Day: Irresponsibly repressive

It was also disingenuous of Random House to suggest that the novel might incite violence. Certain members of the population might choose to commit an act of violence, but that is not the same as the book itself inciting violence. To pass the responsibility in this way to the novel was a betrayal of the author and of free speech.

- Jo Glanville on the firebombing of an independent publisher.

Animated self censorship

Based on the graphic novel by Claus Deleuran, Rejsen Til Saturn (Journey to Saturn) tells the tale of what happens when a Danish crew of misfits travel in space to find natural gas. The film is due to be released on Friday and promises a fart and belch fuelled lampoon of a whole host of political and religious beliefs. Except one.

The one Muslim character in the film has been exempted from any religious satire because the director was concerned about his own, and his familys, safety.

Its unfortunately been impossible to make fun of the Muslims religion. I think we make many jabs at the person Jamil in the film, but its correct that were not touching his belief. Its simply too sensitive an area, that I cant take the responsibility to get involved. I certainly need to think of both my family and my workplace. Im not a fighter, and I dont like to have raging Muslims knocking on my door, says Thorbjørn Christoffersen.

I 100% support that people should be able to make fun of everything. but this is not about special consideration for Muslims, its about consideration for myself and my family, says the director.

Brian Mikkelsen, Denmarks Justice Minister – and former Culture Minister – has expressed sadness at this:

Its sad it its become so that individual artists censure themselves out of fear of religious fanatics. We have in Dnemark a strong and good tradition of satire, also in connection with religious subjects. And we should hold fast to it.”

From the trailer, the film does look like it could be a lot of fun. It is a shame, though – to put it mildly – that the people behind the film should feel threathened into holding back.

Decisively indecisive

In March, Dr Tanya Byron published a review of the risks faced by children if exposed to harmful or inappropriate material" on the internet or in video games and recommended that the rating system for games be changed. She called for a new rating for games aimed at children aged 12 and over - greatly expanding the role of the BBFC in classifying games.

Ed Balls the Schools secretary called the report ground breaking and promised to implement all of the recommendations in full.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge has announced a consultation on whether the recommendations should be implemented in full.

The Entertainment Leisure Software Publishers Association (Elspa) is still in favour of retaining the industry-backed Pegi scheme became the only rating system. The compromise that Tanya Byron recommended in her report was not a good one for child safety, said Michael Rawlinson, managing director of Elspa.

Viacom: We own EVERYTHING

Not content with going fishing for potential copyright violations on YouTube, Viacom are also claiming copyright for videos they don’t own (via).

Juxtaposer is an original animation made by Joanna Davidovich for her senior project. She copyrighted the film in 2006 and says that she only entered into distribution agreements that were nonexclusive.

And now she’s received a notification from YouTube that Viacom has made a copyright ownership claim to the film. She is, of course, disputing the claim and has documentation to support her case but – while the dispute is in progress - Viacom gets access to her video statistics.

Digging around a bit, it looks like the claim is a result of over-reliance on automated copyright claiming - either on the part of Viacom itself or a result of YouTubes Video Identification Tool casting its net too widely. But Viacom does have form with these sorts of claims.

With Viacom sending more than 160,000 DMCA takedown notices, it may not even be aware which videos it told YouTube to remove, said the EFF. If thats right, then Viacom will inevitably end up censoring some perfectly legitimate videos—surely, the MoveOn/Brave New Films video is not the only example of a fair use that got caught in Viacoms driftnet.

Obviously, copyright owners do have every right to protect their intellectual property. However, the approach being taken by groups such as Viacom and YouTube is to assume that everyone is stealing everything; and when they start automating on this basis, these sorts of false positives become inevitable.

Being on the receiving end of a baseless accusation isnt pleasant and this sort of behaviour is going to deter creators from sharing their content.

Ultimately, the burden of proof has to be on the copyright owner, not the accused, and accusing everyone and hoping for the best is neither a viable nor a reasonable approach to protecting intellectual property.

Judith Iscariot attempts to save Brian

The actress who played Judith Iscariot in Monty Pythons Life of Brian became the mayor of Aberystwyth this year. And in one of those quirks of fate, it turns out that the film has been banned in this particular seaside resort for the past 30 years.

Not surprisingly, Sue Jones-Davies (for it is she) is seeking to overturn the ban.

It appears that the ban was recommended back in 1979 by a committee made up of church leaders and, once the fuss had died down, no-one in the councils licensing department remembered it was in place. But its always useful to remind ourselves where pandering to religious sensitivities leads - doubly so as Aberystwyth was where I spent my student years.

Found at Pharyngula