Young people's idea of copyright vs. the law

Andy Baio looks at youngsters' persistent misapprehensions about copyright law, which is stricter than many realize. Exhibit A: a popular YouTube of Pulp Fiction scenes, remixed in chronological order, posted with the disclaimer "No copyright infringement. I only put this up as a project."

Under current copyright law, nearly every cover song on YouTube is technically illegal. Every fan-made music video, every mashup album, every supercut, every fanfic story? Quite probably illegal, though largely untested in court.

No amount of lawsuits or legal threats will change the fact that this behavior is considered normal — I'd wager the vast majority people under 25 see nothing wrong with non-commercial sharing and remixing, or think it's legal already.

Isn't it also interesting how many young artists still instinctively honor the idea, as they see it, of copyright? Respect for other artists comes naturally. People don't stop respecting copyright until they see how little the claimed principles have to do with the reality of enforcement—especially when it's used to condem their own creative expressions as a form of theft.


  1. Everyone I know who’s currently a teenager says stuff like that on YouTube or Vimeo just in the hopes that somehow it will communicate intent and help their work/fun/project/whatever not to be taken down.  They know “everything you could ever want to do” is “always illegal,” they’re just exasperated and couldn’t care less.  The popular definition of copyright, if I had to guess it, among young people today is that you can’t possibly follow the law and have any fun or do what you want to, so there’s no point in even understanding it.  Behavior is just shades of “will I get in trouble and how much” with regard to downloading, remixing, uploading, etc. rather than based on “this is or is not technically illegal.”

    1. One pseudo-disclaimer I’ve seen a lot is “I don’t own this”, as if it’s legal to put something up as long as you don’t claim to be the creator or copyright holder yourself.

      1. i think you’re misreading their intent. I think it’s just a nod to the notion that they are, in fact, ripping someone off without costing them anything.

        It’s youtube that makes the money, not the kids.

  2. My kids are so paranoid about copyright, my 9 year old asked me if it was OK to write down the names of his favorite songs on a piece of paper.  He thought he had to ask permission from the artists.  Madness.

  3. This is the same problem with providing sex ed information to kids in the US:  There’s a specific, intentional disinformation campaign at work which is totally out of sync with reality.  Kids who are told condoms are useless don’t skip sex, but they skip using condoms.  Kids who are told every use is a violation of copyright don’t skip listening to music, but they do fail to distinguish between legal and illegal uses.

    Mind you, the recording industry is constantly working to *make* every use illegal. So the analogy is not quite perfect.

    1. Real echoes of pro-prohibition propaganda as well. If you lie to, manipulate, and mislead people enough, the end result is that you lose credibility.

  4. “largely untested” indeed.

    The copyright laws include exemptions for fair use and for “transformative” works. Both of these are vaguely defined. Fair use is discussed a lot, but in my experience the transformative use aspect is more applicable in today’s culture.  (Actually transformative is a type of fair use). Basically, it says that if the resulting work is not so much a copy of the original, but through the creative input of the new author, it is really a new work, then the copying is legal. One key test that the courts have used is whether or not the new resulting work would cut into the originals market share.

    So in the example given, the Pulp  Fiction re-edit is almost certainly infringing. While interesting, the creative work added is minimal, the resulting medium is the same and it could easily be that someone viewing might be disinclined to view the original afterward. But many mashups and supercuts are probably legal.

  5. I’ve seen a number of “No copyright infringement intended” messages added to stuff that very clearly was infringing (i.e. when someone had posted a complete movie or TV episode). The intent was presumably try to trick a moderator into not looking too closely at it (“These are not the droids you’re looking for”) or to pretend to be a confused innocent rather than a knowing infringer.

    I like the idea that “respect for other artists comes naturally” but I’m not sure I buy it. It might be true of the people who are doing something creative/transformative – the remixers, commentators, fan-subbers and -dubbers. But there are a hell of a lot of people whose attitude seems to be that everything and anything is fair game. It’s instructive to see the invective that some of these freeloaders spew the moment anything gets in the way of what they see as their God-given right to download or upload anything they please.

    1. God didn’t give humans any laws about copyright – humans did. And just because it was rich greedy cooperation who managed to convince the politicians that those laws were just and right doesn’t mean that one day we won’t have new politicians with better morals.

  6. What’s the alternative to these artists though?  Just curl up in a hole somewhere and die?  If your media is mixing existing songs/videos/etc… then you just sort of have to accept the fact that you’re probably breaking the law constantly with your work.  “Transformative” is one of those words that requires lots and lots of money and an expensive lawyer to fight if someone brings it to court.  Same with Fair Use.  And the recording industry likes it that way, and they’re not about to let their congresscritters change it.  In fact they would prefer if those exemptions just went away entirely, it would make their lawsuits much easier and they wouldn’t have to worry about busybodies at the EFF giving them trouble again.  Various legislation has attempted to chip away at those freedoms, but to date they still stand.

    Besides, threatening letters are cheap and almost as effective anyway.  Major media sites already have super easy mechanisms in place for them to shut down stuff.  Just post something like a home made music video to Youtube.  You’ll find it lacking music in short order. 

  7. When does giving away other people’s stuff become art? 

    I doubt these covers and mixes are really about “respect” for the originating artist.  They are about trying to grab someone else’s glory.

    Why not make an original song?  Wouldn’t that be a greater artistic accomplishment? 

    1. Songs don’t pop fully formed from the ether in a burst of mystical superhuman effort by preternatural geniuses.

      They’re created by people who’ve learned the techniques of composition by some combination of theoretical training and practical experience.

      And the best way to gain that experience is to play with the music of others, the same way programmers learn to program and writers learn to write.

      1. It’s one thing to gain experience by playing with the music of others.

        It’s quite another thing to then put someone else’s music on YouTube and earn money from ad impressions on it.

        I can practice piano at home without having to put it on the internet every time I do so.

        1. No fan-mixer in their right mind would try to profit from their remix vid. That’s pretty much telling google to take it down right away (they review your content before letting you profit from ads).

          Not saying it never happens of course, but most mixers know well the difference between personal and commercial use–and that even not getting ad money doesn’t protect you.

    2. You mean like that guy who tried to sell paintings of a can of Campbell’s Soup? He’s still in jail, isn’t he?

    3. So the people getting payed to cover Bach and Mozart are trying to grab their glory?
      When a musician plays another person’s music it is out of either respect or parody, or in the case of Weird Al, both.

  8. Read what the PF-remixer wrote right before the “This is just a project” line on Youtube: “If you’d like me to put the full movie itself up, let me know and I’ll be glad to oblige”. Respect, my ass.

  9. I think people of all ages assume that as long as they aren’t making money off the image, it’s fine to use.  I’m amazed at how often I see bloggers give credit to Google for the photos within their post.  FYI people…  I’ve posted many a picture to my blog with my copyright symbol on them and they are all on Google Images because Google put them there.

  10. my favourite story is the diehard movies, some rock band (boys night out) or something, had a song played to a mashup of diehard scenes on youtube, they had loads of hits. of course the legal department for the studio got wind of it and told them to take it down – which they did. 

    Around the same time, another diehard movie was coming out and the marketing dept was looking to gain publicity and had heard about this video and tried to find it but couldn’t. They finally found the band and called them and said how much can we pay you to put your video back on?

  11. Nothing is original. All ideas are a remix of an inspiration of someone else’s work.
    I had a video of mine flagged on YouTube by EMI Music as a possible infringement of the Song Popcorn by Gershon Kingsley, despite being a clearly transformative work. I filled out the ‘I disagree’ form promptly.
    Nobody covers a song by an artist that they don’t respect.
    I’m waiting for Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers et al to complain next.

  12. there’s no such thing as an original thought. If you think of something, someone somewhere  has already thought of it before. Imagine if somehow at that instant you could pickup the phone and call that person.. It would probably be busy.

    1. there’s no such thing as an original thought.

       There are still a finite number of monkeys, so yes, there is. 

  13. I feel like society as a whole doesn’t even understand the meaning of the WORD ‘copyright’ as distinct from ‘license’.

    I am sick and tire of people making assertions that downloading copyrighted material without paying is illegal. The vast majority of ‘free’ software and ‘free’ content IS copyrighted, and also has a some kind of license attached explicitly encouraging free dissemination.

  14. This has me wondering about Tumblr, now.  They make it extremely easy to reblog a pic from another account that you’re following.   Two clicks and you’ve reblogged that pic  (with a link back to where you reblogged from….)   So, is that reblogging basically a copyright violation or is it just a matter of posting a link to someone else’s content? 

    1. The reblogging isn’t the problem with Tumblr (which I use and like, by the way). Reblogging is the lifeblood of their system, and you implicitly agree that this can happen to anything you post there (you want this to happen, as it’s an amazingly effective way to get people to see your stuff).

      The problem with Tumblr is that a huge percentage of the stuff on it is originally posted by people without the copyright, and without even any attribution of the source (if anything, popular Tumblr bloggers try to hide their sources – like how old-school DJs would take the labels off their vinyl records).

  15. How would songs learned from the sheet music published in a magazine be considered?  I have five guitar videos up on Youtube, all but one of which are in the public domain.  I know the magazine music is still ASCAP’d, so would that be a problem?  I’m not frightened or otherwise concerned, I just would like to know if I should watch my back.

  16. I believe this article is in error when it refers to cover songs as infringing content.

    United States Code section 114 of title 17 provides: The exclusive rights of the owner of copyright in a sound recording under clauses (1) and (2) of section 106 do not extend to the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording.

  17. And the fun thing is… Copyright law as we know is well on it’s way to death by irrelevance.  Killed by overzealous associations of  “rights-holders” and by lawmakers.
    They made it impossible for normal people to do normal things without infringing the law, and drove them into confusion and frustration, then into indifference. They don’t have infinite resources for enforcement. It’s simply not possible to hobble the Internet the way they want. Someone else can come up with ways of benefiting from original work that are not utterly impracticable.

    Guess who will eventually end in the metaphorical dustbin, financially and in all the other senses. The rest of the world that adapts and creates? Nope.

  18. At some level I’d like to see oppressive copyright regimes overreach and help to spur the growth of the Creative Commons but I think this is unlikely because as businesses they quite clearly see that the value is not in removing all derivative works but in exercising veto. If a creative work is not directly serving their interests or is in competition they can kill it.

    Regarding what goes through a kids head when they post a derivative work, I think that the copyright cartels have created an environment that entrenches the  idea that everything is owned and there are no permissions granted to a derivative work to exist. There is only: available and removed, and the decision to remove is made by the gatekeepers.

    In a kids mind all derivative works are probably illegal. Kids when posting their works  are trying to put themselves in the mind of the gatekeepers and it appears that a common thought is;  “I’m not taking any commercial advantage or causing any disadvantage therefore my “derivative” (hence illegal work) might be pardoned.” It is a certainty that fair use never enters their mind.

  19. “I’d wager the vast majority people under 25 see nothing wrong with non-commercial sharing and remixing”

    There IS nothing wrong with it. Being illegal doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it punishable.

  20. I knew the war was over about ten years ago when Family Circle discussed the value of making your own gifts for people and quoted Laura Bush saying that she and her daughters had given President Bush a mix-CD for his workouts and everyone agreed it was all heartwarming and so on. I was amazed the RIAA didn’t come down on her, her daughters and that radical rag then and there.

  21. A few years ago I pitched an idea to the MPAA, that I would try to find out what students (at universities in India) thought about copyright. I was curious because I had seen little evidence that people in the MPAA had any idea what moviegoers (and music listeners) think/understand about copyright, and I was personally curious about the reasons piracy is so prevalent (especially in countries such as India and China where median incomes are low and media prices are relatively high … though in China the MPAA member companies have priced their products much more competitively).

    I made a short video documenting students’ views recorded in interviews, and from that, I made a comic book distilling the responses down even further. I was able to interview students at four universities in three major cities, and to speak with a law professor, an actor, and the writer/director of India’s best-ever-selling (at the time … not sure about the current situation) DVD movie.

    The kids were smart, thoughtful, and the project was fantastically interesting. For most interviewees, including the writer/director, the problem boiled mostly down to pricing: a DVD movie in India was then priced at around $10, which was unaffordable by most people.

    The comic is online here:

  22. I once had a client pull a bunch of images from the Net for a project, who told me we didn’t need permission because they were from the “common Internet domain.”

    1. I’ve seen people put “source: Google” or something similar when they’ve used Google Image Search  to find photos and don’t seem to realise that Google was just the means by which they found them.

  23. So, if that’s how things are in the USA, are we any better off in the UK?  – or elsewhere? (It would be great if posts such as this could be slightly more globally-aware rather than assuming that the entire readership of Boing-Boing resides in the USA)

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