Copyright Weaponization

The internet is still trying to figure out its relationship with copyright. On one hand, copyright protects people’s hard work. It prevents others from selling work as their own, consequently encouraging people to produce art because they know they will be able to protect it. On the other hand, stealing is absolutely rampant. “Meme accounts” pick up viral content of the day and repost it without attribution, sometimes even placing their own watermarks on it as if they originally created it. There’s a non-insignificant number of YouTube channels devoted to “reacting” to popular videos, which is often little more than making a few remarks while playing the entire video.

On the other other hand (I have three hands), there is nothing the internet does better than a good remix. Content is continuously repackaged and repurposed to entertain, amuse, and educate. Sometimes it’s an actual musical remix, sometimes it’s a visual essay featuring clips of a movie, sometimes it’s a clip or screencap used in a humorous way. Some of this clearly falls into the realm “fair use,” which roughly means that it is transformative and its consumption does not replace the consumption of the original content. There are more specific rules about monetization (generally a no-go) and details, but that’s the general overview.

There are some genres, however, that don’t qualify as “fair use” but are still usually allowed by the copyright holder. One example of this is a “Let’s Play” video, which features a YouTube personality playing a game, reacting to it, and talking about their experience throughout. By all legal standards, it’s definitely copyright infringement: it’s often just blatant footage of the game with minimum commentary or additional value. However, there is very rarely any harm to letting YouTubers upload Let’s Play videos—if it’s a popular channel, it often boosts sales of the game and essentially serves as free advertising.

That is, until the channel becomes something you don’t want to associate with. Campo Santo, the creators of the critically acclaimed game Firewatch, filed a DMCA takedown of PewDiePie’s Firewatch video after he used a racial slur in a livestream. The video was swiftly removed, which made sense: Campo Santo has the legal right to take down any Firewatch Let’s Play videos at any time.

In another case, the creator of the meme Pepe the Frog has starting sending takedown notices to alt-right blogs. Pepe, once an innocuous comic character, transformed into a meme last year. However, the original neutral meme was claimed as an alt-right symbol and used to promote the Trump 2016 campaign by many of his supporters. The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, already took down an Islamophobic book that featured Pepe and donated the settlement to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Now he is widening his reach, insisting that his character should not be used for hateful ideology.

Both of these cases are interesting because they demonstrate a conflict in the online world. These creators have the legal right to take down infringement on their work, and feel the moral drive to target a particular usage of it. However, what does it mean for the future of copyright when ideology is used to dictate legal actions? If people want to take down one usage, should they have to address all infringement on their work? It’s not that I don't understand their reasoning, but what happens if (when) a conservative artist doesn’t like the way a liberal artist has repurposed their work and chooses to target them? We could be looking at a new era in copyright on the internet: weaponization. The lines are blurry, but we may see them come into focus soon.