By Tim Joyce, MJLST EIC-Emeritus
Lately I’ve seen several Facebook links to a pirated copy of Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy Michael Wolff expose documenting the first nine months of the President’s tenure. The book reportedly gives deep, behind-the-scenes perspectives on many of Mr. Trump’s most controversial actions, including firing James Comey and accusing President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower.
It was therefore not surprising when Trump lawyers slapped a cease & desist letter on Wolff and his publisher. While there are probably volumes yet to be written about the merits of those claims (in my humble opinion: “sorry, bros, that’s not how defamation of a public figure works”), this blog post deals with the copyright implications of sharing and reading the pirated copy of the book, and the ethical quandaries it creates. I’ll start with the straightforward part.
THE APPLICABLE LAW
First, it should almost go without saying that the person who initially created the PDF copy of the 300+ page book broke the law. (Full disclosure: I did click on the Google link, but only to verify that it was indeed the book and not just a cover page. It was. Even including the page with copyright information!) I’ll briefly connect the dots for any copyright-novices reading along:
- Wolff is the “author” of the book, a “literary work” that constitutes an “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” [see 17 USC 102’].
- As the author, one of his copyrights is to control … well … copying. The US Code calls that “reproduction” [see 17 USC 106].
- He also gets exclusive right to “display” the literary work “by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process” [see 17 USC 101]. Basically, he controls display in any medium like, say, via a Google Drive folder.
- Unauthorized reproduction, display, and/or distribution is called “infringement” [see 17 USC 501]. There are several specific exceptions carved into the copyright code for different types of creative works, uses, audiences, and other situations. But this doesn’t fall into one of those exceptions.
- So, the anonymous infringer has broken the law.
- [It’s not clear, yet, whether this person is also a criminal under 17 USC 506, because I haven’t seen any evidence of fraudulent intent or acting “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.”]
Next, anyone who downloads a copy of the book onto their smartphone or laptop is also an infringer. The same analysis applies as above, only with a different starting point. The underlying material’s copyright is still held by Wolff as the author. Downloading creates a “reproduction,” which is still unauthorized by the copyright owner. Unauthorized exercise of rights held exclusively by the author + no applicable exceptions = infringement.
Third, I found myself stuck as to whether I, as a person who had intentionally clicked through into the Google Drive hosting the PDF file, had also technically violated copyright law. Here, I hadn’t downloaded, but merely clicked the link which launched the PDF in a new Chrome tab. The issue I got hung up on was whether that had created a “copy,” that is a “material objects … in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” [17 USC 101]
Computer reproductions are tricky, in part because US courts lately haven’t exactly given clear guidance on the matter. (Because I was curious — In Europe and the UK, it seems like there’s an exception for temporary virtual copies, but only when incidental to lawful uses.) There’s some debate as to whether it’s infringement if only the computer is reading the file, and for a purpose different than perceiving the artistic expression. (You may remember the Google Books cases…) However, when it’s humans doing the reading, that “purpose of the copying” argument seems to fall by the wayside.
Cases like Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings have attempted to solve the problem of temporary copies (as when a new browser window opens), but the outcome there (i.e., temporary copies = ok) was based in part on the fact that the streaming service being sued had the right to air the media in question. Their copy-making was merely for the purposes of increasing speed and reducing buffering for their paid subscribers. Here, where the right to distribute the work is decidedly absent, the outcome seems like it should be the opposite. There may be a case out there that deals squarely with this situation, but it’s been awhile since copyright class (yay, graduation!) and I don’t have free access to Westlaw anymore. It’s the best I could do in an afternoon.
Of course, an efficient solution here would be to first crack down on the entities and individuals that first make the infringement possible – ISPs and content distributors. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act already gives copyright owners a process to make Facebook take bootleg copies of their stuff down. But that only solves half the problem, in my opinion. We have to reconcile our individual ethics of infringement too.
ETHICAL ISSUES, FOR ARTISTS IN PARTICULAR
One of the more troubling aspects of this pirateering that I saw was that the link-shares came from people who make their living in the arts. These are the folks who–rightly, in my opinion–rail against potential “employers” offering “exposure” instead of cold hard cash when they agree to perform. To expect to be paid for your art, while at the same time sharing an illegal copy of someone else’s, is logically inconsistent to me.
As a former theater actor and director (read: professional almost-broke person) myself, I can understand the desire to save a few dollars by reading the pirated copy. The economics of making a living performing are tough – often you agree to take certain very-low-paying artistic jobs as loss-leaders toward future jobs. But I have only met a very few of us willing to perform for free, and even fewer who would tolerate rehearsing with the promise of pay only to be stiffed after the performance is done. That’s essentially what’s happening when folks share this bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book.
I’ve heard some relativistic views on the matter, saying that THIS book containing THIS information is so important NOW, that a little infringement shouldn’t matter. But you could argue that Hamilton, the hit musical about the founding of our nation and government, has equally urgent messages regarding democracy, totalitarianism, individual rights, etc. Should anyone, therefore, be allowed to just walk into the theater and see the show without paying? Should the cast be forced to continue performing even when there is no longer ticket revenue flowing to pay for their efforts? I say that in order to protect justice at all times, we have to protect justice this time.
Creating, downloading, and possibly even just viewing the bootleg copy of Michael Wolff’s book linking around Facebook is copyright infringement. We cannot violate this author’s rights now if we expect to have our artistic rights protected tomorrow.
These were just some quick thoughts, and I’m sure there’s more to say on the matter. If you’d like to discuss any copyright issues further, I’m all ears.