Wanted: Examples of Copyright Being Used For Censorship


Do you know some great examples of copyright being used to censor?

If so, please share them by commenting here or by sending us email. We’re putting together a presentation about the equivalence between copyright and censorship, and need to have an overwhelming number of examples at hand — enough to make it clear that the ones we choose to highlight have been picked from an ocean of candidates. We need compelling examples because the most important ones are the hardest to show: when an artist unconsciously steers away from an idea because of rights issues, that is censorship, but it is internalized and thus invisible to the outside world. We need examples to help make clear the link between visible, externally-imposed censorship and the much more common self-imposed censorship that copyright law encourages.

A great starting point is the Electronic Frontier Foundations’s Takedown Hall of Shame, listing people and organizations who have used copyright law (especially the DMCA) to squash criticism.

But situations where copyright suppresses art itself are just as important, and are just as much censorship as political censorship is. Some examples:

The audience we’re aiming at is groups already concerned about freedom of expression who may not have considered copyright as a systemic form of censorship. For example, the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable, the Index On Censorship, and the Authors Guild. Note that such groups are often comprised of writers and artists who came of age in the pre-Internet, copyright-controlled era, so it is especially important to have an overwhelming amount of data to show that there is a problem here.

The Free Expression Policy Project seems to already have copyright-based censorship on their radar screen; there’s probably some good stuff in the archives there. Also, if you’re an artist who has been affected by this kind of censorship, we definitely want to hear from you!

16 Comments on "Wanted: Examples of Copyright Being Used For Censorship"

  1. I remember RMS was quite keen on the idea of a boycott of Harry Potter books for some time, in part for reasons of agressively using copyright law to supress works considered too “similar”. See the bottom of stallman.org/harry-potter.html for links to the two cases.

    I expect you may be able to find stronger cases, however. And perhaps not choose a target so well regarded as the Harry Potter franchise? But that’s just tactics. Regardless this is straightforward censorship designed to limit (re)expression in a field to maximise profit.

  2. During the campaign, youtube pulled down some of McCain’s campaign video mashups, in response to DMCA’s Fair Use “Safe Harbor” requests by TV news networks. What we know of the story consists of a letter sent by Trevor Potter (General Counsel of the McCain campaign) to Youtube, and a response by Zahavah Levine, Youtube’s lawyer: “We hope that as a content uploader, you have gained a sense of the challenges we face everyday … We look forward to working with Senator (or President) McCain on ways to combat abuse of the DMCA takedown process.”

  3. Thank you — these are both good examples so far (and we got another one by email; I’m just checking back before publishing to make sure nothing in it is confidential). Please keep the examples coming, folks!

  4. The German silent film “Nosferatu — Eine Symphonie des Grauens” from 1922 is another example about how copyright laws can harm the society.
    Today it is seen as a milestone in the film history, and not because of the story. But it was nearly lost for good.

    The film is loosely based on the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. But the film makers couldn’t get the rights to make a film of this novel. So they changed all names and changed the story a little. But Florence Stoker, the widow of Bram Stoker sued, and a court ordered that all copies of the film have to be destroyed.

    But copies of the film have already been sold to foreign countries, which were not bound to German law. So these copies could be saved from destruction. Today there is a German “restored” version. But this version was mostly restored from the foreign copies.

    The film is still under copyright in Germany. But it seems it is in the public domain in the USA. So the English version is available on the internet today (This version uses the names of the novel, but the original film had other names in it)

    More infos on the German wikipedia (The English wikipedia also has an article about the film, but without the legal background)

    1. That is an amazing story — and a great example. Thank you! (I’ve seen the movie, but didn’t know this history until now.)

  5. Don’t know if this is the kind of stuff you guys are looking for but Francis Ford Coppola’s
    use of copyrights to prevent the release of a restored version of Abel Gance’s 1927 master piece “Napoleon” is pretty shameful.

    Google it for all the sordid details.

  6. Perfect, thank you. Here’s a story at BoingBoing that gives the outline and links to further sources. What’s amazing is this was a silent film, and they were apparently saying that now any showing anywhere in the world would have to use a score written by composer Carmine Coppola (father of the director Francis Ford Coppola). This goes completely against the tradition of silent films, for which which not only would different accompaniments be composed but often would be improvised on the spot (usually by an organist or pianist) at a particular screening.

  7. No one seems to remember that in 2009, Wizards of the Coast took down the old editions of the D&D game and all works down from various online stores.  This was because Player’s Handbook 2 was leaked to the internet before it was officially published.

    They had locked away 30 years of history in games in one fell swoop.  Now people can’t get them except through illegal torrents.  Now a vital part of our recreational history is locked out on us and we can’t get it back.  It was basically the last straw for me.


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