Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The use and abuse of copyright – thoughts on presentations at TechCrunch40

Posted by shannonclark on September 19, 2007

disclaimer – I am not an attorney, so do not take anything here as a legal opinion. That said, I have many friends who are lawyers, many who are creators of lots of copyrighted works, and quite a few whose companies are built on the use of copyrighted works – in a legal manner. I am also a supporter of Creative Commons and use CC licenses on much of my own creative output.

On stage at TechCrunch 40 earlier this week I saw a nearly unbelievable amount of misuse of copyright. Much of it was simple and almost certainly not intended to offend, but startup after startup used unlicensed images from across the web (or ripped from other media), many used clips from Hollywood movies, and in many cases this use extended beyond the PowerPoint they showed on stage to their live website and application.

At least one company has already been called out in public by my friend Scott Beale – at least they have apologized in the comments and removed the infringing photos from their site. In their case they abused a cc licensed work, perhaps not realizing that there are many variations of such licenses each which allow different uses and require different acts. In Scott’s case he does not allow commercial use of his works, and in the case of non-commercial use he requires attribution and spells out clearly how he wants that attribution. He has at times allowed commercial use of his images – but only when as his license requires the company in question has asked him and gotten permission, usually he asks for some attribution.

In general however there did not seem to be a realization in the presentations by many of the companies (there were, thankfully a few exceptions) that using other people’s images, videos, and music without permission or a license (including abiding by a CC license) is a bad idea. Further that it could include very real legal issues – far beyond a small specific infringement – in many cases I think a strong case could be made on the basis of the company’s fairly public demo at TC40 that they as a company were encouraging infringement in the use of their application – i.e. that their application is built with the intent to infringe copyright. In turn, that could lead to very serious legal issues – not just for the company but also for the founders individually should the company be sued.

[did I mention, I’m not a lawyer, go talk with your lawyer about these issues. Also, consider attending the EFF’s Bootcamp on Compliance for Web 2.0 companies being held on Oct. 10th ]

In all fairness I should note that in the final grouping of startups on stage at TechCrunch 40 there were a bunch who did the right thing in their presentations and even more importantly in the underlying design of their applications. They talked about the rights of the creators of the content (even when that content was “user generated” – and in fact took steps to have proven to them that the people who submit the content have the rights to that content they are submitting. In other cases the companies showed working with bands to promote their content and offer an experience for their fans. I commented to many people that the final group of companies clearly “got” rights issues. They used cc works in the right way, gave attribution even in the course of using works in their business presentations, and showed business models that respected the rights of content creators and owners.


But far too rare.

UPDATE – Don Dodge summed up the issues and his comments in a great post about copyright law and the presentations at TechCrunch 40


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