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.

A Response to the Comments Section

I am as frustrated by the perpetual negative portrayal of YouTubers and YouTube culture as the next person, but some things are too egregious to even try to defend. Felix Kjellberg, more popularly known as “PewDiePie,” is the most popular vlogger on YouTube. He’s ascended to incredible fame, power, and success through his “Let’s Play” videos, and has branded himself as an “edgy” comedian who isn’t afraid to swear and cause trouble. If you even have a passing interest in online video news, you’ve probably already heard that he is currently under fire for using the n-word in frustration to insult a Playerunknown’s Battleground player during a livestream. He then said “sorry,” repeated the sentence with “asshole” instead, and then said he didn’t mean it “in a bad way.”

Yes, he did indeed interchange it with “asshole” and then attempt to claim it wasn’t “in a bad way.”

Like many other people, I am already tired of this story and generally fatigued with talking about Felix. There’s so much good that comes from YouTube, and the focus on people like Felix is demoralizing. However, he is the most popular personality on the platform. That means that even if he represents a poor side of YouTube, anything he does holds huge sway over how the community is represented overall. Also, people never cease to amaze me with the way they will bend over backwards to defend and justify the terrible actions of fully grown men. So here we have a list of excuses I’ve seen, and my arguments against them:

1. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Come on, you aren’t even trying. Answer: no.

2. “He’s young, he made a mistake.”

It’s always funny to me when people use this excuse, because the person they’re talking about is almost always older than me. Also: no.

3. “He’s Swedish, and it doesn’t carry the same weight in Sweden.”

I’m not familiar with Swedish culture, so I don’t know if this is true or not. However, Felix has lived in the United Kingdom since 2013, and is definitely familiar with both English and American culture through his audience. The odds that he just didn’t understand the weight of the word are next to zero, especially since he immediately tried to correct himself on the livestream.

4. “(insert YouTuber here) says the n-word all the time, and no one cares”

This reminds me of the people who tell feminists that women in Saudi Arabia have it so much worse than them whenever they talk about an issue. If the only time you bring up another example is to try to shoot someone down, it’s not an effective argument. Now, if this was brought up as an argument that there should be a greater backlash for use of racist language by all people, not just Felix—I can agree with that. That brings me to:

5. “Calm down. People say that all the time when they get angry playing games.”

Who are you hanging out with??

A few points here. One, commonality does not equal morality. Horrific things have been common throughout history, and while we try to push our society towards more just social norms, there is never a point when “lots of people do it” is the only goal post that must be passed for something to be “okay.”

Also, I get angry when playing games, and I have never once in my life shouted a racial slur. I’m not trying to suggest that I’m somehow morally superior, I just think that should be the baseline for human decency. I’ve never yelled the n-word in frustration because I’ve never once said the n-word, and so it’s never the word that comes to mind. When people are angry, their reaction isn’t going to be a word they never say, it’s going to be something that’s in their vocabulary.

6. “This isn’t a big deal.”

I agree that there are more important things out there—climate change is worsening our natural disasters and causing irreversible damage, millions of children live in poverty, and the risk of nuclear war seems to be slowly ticking forward by the day. However, there’s also been a resurgence of racism and white nationalism in the mainstream culture of the United States, and that has very real and dangerous effects. It’s not “just words.” It’s contributing to a system of violence that enables people who truly believe that Black people are inferior, and causes real life harm in innumerable ways.

It matters because everything that contributes to a system of white supremacy matters, but it’s a big deal because Felix is the most popular vlogger on YouTube. I keep saying that because it is important, because he does have a huge audience, and because he commands a lot more power than most other people. A lot of people are complaining that Felix is receiving this attention when other YouTubers who say the n-word aren’t, but there’s a very good reason why he gets more attention: because, well, he gets more attention.

7. “He’s not really racist.”

I don’t know and I don’t care. “Racist” isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, and he’s doing it. I don’t care what’s in Felix’s heart of hearts, I care what’s coming out of his mouth, and it’s not pretty.