The new QCO headquarters.

Well, it’s been a long time coming: we moved into our new headquarters this weekend.  As you can see, at last there’s room for all our staff — no more doubling up at desks, no more working in shifts, no more waiting lists for parking spaces.  We’re really looking forward to finally being able to fit everyone at the all-hands meetings!

Many thanks to the recent donors who made this possible, especially the RIAA, MPAA, and Disney.  Without their steadfast support, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Modern, state-of-the-art buildings like this don’t come cheap, of course.  Although we’re convinced the new headquarters is the right decision for the organization, we thought it would be wise to start a capital campaign now to cover grounds maintenance, heating and cooling, electricity, and, of course, the snack budget.  There’s a full kitchen on every floor — our dedicated associates will need fuel to fight for your freedoms effectively.

If you’d like to support us in our new home, please donate today!

Example of quilt designs from Leah Day.

There’s a terrific article by Leah Day entitled “Copyright Terrorism“, over at the Free Motion Quilting Project.

While we usually try to avoid the T-word over here at Question Copyright, so as not to inflate the language in an already loud debate, the substance of Day’s article is right on.  The growing problem she describes in quilting is the full-grown problem we already have in literature, music, and elsewhere:

Copyright issues seem to be cropping up with increasing frequency in the quilting world and I for one would like to try to stem this flow, or at least open your eyes, to the very real threat looming for our craft.

What is this threat?  Where is it coming from?

It is coming from within our own ranks. Quilters with a certain penchant for copyright and legal wrangling are turning our open, creative craft into a mine field of rules, regulations, licensing, attribution, and copyright lockdown that it’s enough to make anyone set down their rotary cutter and sell their sewing machine.

My favorite passage:

My question is this: is this the world we want to create? 

Is this the industry we want to build, where quilters who quilt for a living must live in fear that they will be sued for the designs they use?  That a blogger trying to teach and spread the love of free motion quilting can be threatened for using the wrong design? That quilters who quilt for show must credit every designer involved in their quilt, down to the fabric and thread manufacturer?

She then goes on to give an example, and points out the insidious positive feedback loop that happens once people start suing.

Read the whole thing.

Everything.Recently, I gave a Sita Sings the Blues talk to a roomful of 15-to-17-year-olds. Near the end I explained Free Culture and my stance against copyright, which led to some interesting discussion. Turns out most of them are manga fans, and familiar with publishers’ complaints about scanned and translated manga shared freely online. They all read them anyway (except one, who prefers to read entire manga in the bookstore). I asked them how they would choose to support artists they liked (once they had some disposable income) and they said:


  1. Donate buttons – with the qualification that they want to know as much as possible about where the donation is going. They said honesty and transparency are important.
  2. Kickstarter – They all knew about it (which was notable because none of them had heard of Flattr) and valued pitch videos that explained how the money would be used.
  3. Custom drawings
  4. Merch
  5. Physical copies
  6. Live Shared Experiences, including ballet, museum exhibits, and concerts. The event aspect was important; they wanted to be able to say, “Remember that one time when that awesome show was here…” They agreed seeing things in person is a more powerful experience than seeing things online, and worth spending more on. One said she would buy CD at a live show because “it reminds you of the show.”
  7. One said he would support artists by promoting their work to his friends.

Semi-related, I took an informal poll of how many would prefer to read a book on paper vs. an e-reader. The vast majority said paper, but what they really seemed to want was dual formats: paper copies to read comfortably and collect, and digital copies to search and reference. Makes sense to me. Only two of them had iPads, and none used them for “enhanced eBooks.”

My favorite quote of the afternoon, from a 15-year-old girl:

“We don’t want everything for free. We just want everything.

crossposted from’s pro bono General Counsel Karen Sandler took part in a panel this past Wednesday at the music conference of South by Southwest: Set Your Content Free (It’s Harder Than You Think).

Moderated by Michael Petricone of the Consumer Electronics Association, the panel also had Hank Shocklee (of Bomb Squad/Public Enemy fame), Julie Samuels of EFF, and Paul Geller of Grooveshark:


2012 SXSW Free Content panel participants.


Karen’s writeup is over at her GNOMG blog, so please check it out there (for the sake of keeping comments centralized in one place).

Many thanks to Karen for representing!  And note her awesome t-shirt: you can have one too.

Putting the Internet in jail.As reader libreuniverse pointed out in forwarding this, this is big, big news: large Internet service providers, on whom millions of people depend for their Internet service, are going to start acting as copyright police:

“RIAA chief: ISPs to start policing copyright by July 12”


The short version: each ISP will maintain a database of “repeat offenders”, with gradually escalating punishments, starting with warning letters, then moving to slowing down the subscriber’s connection, and finally to cutting them off altogether.

This is going to hurt artists.  It’s going to drive unauthorized copying even further underground, onto the so-called “dark networks” where people use encryption and other forms of indirection to hide from the network provider (and therefore from everyone else except the intended recipient) what’s being copied.  Use of such techniques is already widespread, and now it will become common and normal.  This means artists don’t get credit for their popularity: it becomes more and more difficult for an artist to tell who likes them and where and why, because all of the sharing and the commenting and recommendation that goes along with it gets driven underground.  The ISPs are essentially forcing fans to hide their love of their favorite artists.

This is unfairly one-sided — the ISP holds all the cards.  There is no penalty for the ISPs when they make a mistake, so the tilt is all towards heavy-handed enforcement that will prevent all sorts of legal sharing and will inevitably punish innocent users.  I hesitate even to use the word “innocent”, since there’s nothing wrong with people sharing culture anyway, but even given  the distributor-driven bias of current law, this arrangement is unjust and will force many people to waste time fighting mistakenly-applied penalties.

This is nothing new.  The privatization of censorship has been the pattern with copyright since the very beginning, when the Stationers Company was first given a monopoly over printing in England and authorized to burn unapproved books and destroy unapproved presses.  The ISPs are now reconstituting that private sector information police force, first invented by England to combat the spread of seditious pamphlets… and later rejected by the English Parliament as being too great a restriction on freedom of speech.  Will it take us as long (thirteen decades) to come to the same conclusion?

This is what happens when media companies are also Internet service providers.  Anti-trust law typically focuses on confluences of power within the same industry, but this is a case of two mutually symbiotic industries — the management of state-granted monopolies in the form of copyright ownership, and the provision of Internet service to individual customers — that are increasingly run by the very same companies.  No one would advocate that recreational beverage companies also be put in charge of municipal water management, would they?  But that’s effectively what we get when media companies are also in charge of the pipes through which the information flows.  If ever two functions should be wholly separate, it’s these two.

On the bright side, the more people get those warnings from their ISPs, the more allies we’ll have in the fight for the freedom to share culture and to communicate without restriction.  It would be hard to imagine a more effective constituency-building measure — and even better, the ISPs are paying for it.  I’m thinking of requesting a summary of their implementation costs, so we can send them a letter of thanks and a confirmation of that amount as a donation.

Crossposted from

This morning a friend shared with me some amusing American Sign Language videos, and in return I wanted to share with him my favorite ASL video of all time: B. Storm’s interpretation of the Gnarls Barkley song Crazy. Only I couldn’t because it was gone. Why? Because “This video contains content from WMG (Warner Music Group), who has blocked it on copyright grounds.” This is appalling for many reasons, not least of which being the video is almost certainly fair use.

WMG youtube block message

Copying is not theft, but censorship is. When a video is blocked, banned, erased, or otherwise censored, we don’t have it any more. The commons is robbed. When B. Storm copied the song Crazy into his video, WMG’s copies were still there. When WMG censored B. Storm’s video, it was gone.

I couldn’t accept that such a great video was simply gone, so I attempted to recreate and re-share the original video. I found a silent version and combined it with the song, which I captured from the official video using Audio Hijack Pro (having written that, I expect storm troopers to bust down my door any minute now). Unfortunately its sync was a little off; soundtracks end up slightly different lengths and speeds due to all the different kinds of compression out there, and the song I captured was slightly longer than what B. Storm had on his original video. Fortunately another web search, using different terms, led me to this website of videos curated for deaf kids, which miraculously contained the unmolested video embedded from weebly. This I was able to download, and then re-upload to Vimeo where it’s easier to share and embed. Of course it could be taken down at any time, so get it while you can:

Great art like this matters too much to passively let monopolists erase it from our common culture. When you find good videos online, consider making local back-up copies. We never know what’s going to be censored when, and without audience back-ups some great art could be lost forever.

Happy New Year!  In 2012, we wish for more and more people everywhere to question copyright, and for more artists and audiences to take the plunge into freedom-based distribution.

Speaking of which, was anyone watching Al Jazeera English when QCO artist-in-residence Nina Paley’s Copying Is Not Theft Minute Meme came on?  We’d love to know more about the broadcast that this image comes from:

Minute Meme "Copying Is Not Theft" being shown on Al Jazeera English (live stream).

Someone sent it to Nina via Facebook — that’s all we know about it so far.  We hope they showed the whole thing, though!

(Anyone with further information, please leave a comment here or contact us.)

follow the moneyIt’s dismaying enough when governments adopt the copyright industry’s PR strategy of confusing copying with counterfeiting — which are unrelated and should be treated separately, as we pointed out last year in sections (4) and (5) of our letter to the U.S.’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.

It’s even more disappointing when independent journalism outlets like the New York Times adopt the monopolists’ framing too, apparently unconsciously.  Unfortunately, it happens so often that we can’t stop to point out every instance; however, when it’s above the fold on the front page of the New York Times, it’s worth a mention.

David Barboza’s article “One Entrepreneur’s Rival in China: The State” in the Dec 8th, 2011 New York Times is about how a state-backed company in China used design techniques “stolen” (i.e., copied in violation of contract) from a private company.  In legal terms, this is more about trade secrets and perhaps patents than it is about copyright, but the copying-vs-fraud distinction that needs to be made is conceptually the same, and the Times fails to make it:

According to Cathay [Industrial Biotech], a factory manager stole its secrets and started a rival company that has begun selling a suspiciously similar ingredient, undermining Cathay’s profits. Instead of planning to go public, Cathay is now struggling to stay in business.


In this counterfeit-friendly nation, employees run off with manufacturing designs almost daily. But according to Cathay, this was copying with a special twist: the new competitor, Hilead Biotech, is backed by the Chinese government.

(I don’t want to single out Barboza; in enabling this confusion, he’s simply following current house style at the Times.)

Now, we don’t advocate violating contracts, or for that matter trade secret laws.  We merely advocate thinking and talking clearly about what is what.  Unauthorized copying of industrial formulas has absolutely nothing to do with counterfeiting.  Why did the author  toss in that “In this counterfeit-friendly nation…”?  What has it got to do with the story?  Nothing at all.  It’s just that the copyright and patent industries would like you to think of unauthorized replication as being exactly the same as telling lies about a product’s provenance, because everyone knows lying is bad and therefore it is useful (to those industries) to associate certain other activities with lying — activities that, if considered on their own merits, might start to look morally neutral or even positive, such as when a poor nation manufactures important drugs cheaply in violation of someone’s patent, or infringes copyright to print educational materials its students can afford.  So the industries try to confuse these issues all the time, pretending different things are the same, until the minds of government officials and journalists go numb and they simply repeat what they’ve heard.

This is how global copyright enforcement provisions become part of the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” (ACTA).  The name is no accident.  The U.S. copyright and patent enforcement authorities have gotten the message, and the message is “Confuse the public as much as possible, by pretending that copying is the same as fraud.”  They may not even be aware they’re following someone else’s talking points.  To them, this is simply the language that is used to discuss these issues — it feels natural.

But the New York Times doesn’t have to play along.  They manage, on occasion and in other areas, to be properly skeptical of both corporate and government rhetoric, and it would be nice if they did so for this topic too.

Ho Simon WangRaised in Mainland China and Hong Kong, Ho Simon Wang received his undergraduate education from Washington University in Saint Louis, USA and a Master degree in education from Oxford University, UK. He is currently living in Wuhan, China working as an English language teacher at Huazhong University of Science and Technology while pursuing a PhD degree in intellectual property rights at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

It is amazing how the Internet makes it possible for people to connect with one another in ways that were not possible a decade ago.  Jennifer Howard published an article “What you don’t know about copyright and should” in The Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2011.  As a research student on copyright from China, I was naturally drawn to this piece and quickly added a comment suggesting that any introduction to copyright would be considered incomplete without a few words on the free culture movement such as Open Source Software and Creative Commons.  My opinion was echoed by Mr. Karl Fogel at, who later invited me to write about “how people feel about copyright in China, especially focusing on the general public’s attitude toward copying and sharing and attribution” for   This article is a result of that fortuitous interaction between Karl and me, which would have been unthinkable if access to Ms. Howard’s article were restricted by copyright.  This anecdote illustrates the first point I want to make about copyright in general: the copyright regime restricts the distribution of creative works and stifles the conversation that creative works may generate.  The Internet has emerged as an antidote to this restriction, as Karl and I could read and discuss Ms. Howard’s article online and work together for new articles on the same topic.

Earlier this year, I ran into a book named “Uncommon Sense- Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism” when browsing, one of the most popular social networking sites on books, movies and music for young people in China.  Authored by two leading scholars from America, the Nobel economist Gary Becker and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, the book was translated into Chinese by a leading publisher and received a high rating from users at  But the Douban users also grudged about the relatively high price of the book- RMB 56 (the monthly stipend for a PhD student in China is about RMB 1,500). A Google search quickly located for me a free e-copy of the book, which was uploaded by some netizens to, a major web portal in China.  The e-copy I got was the original English version, which I could read without worrying about the errors or loss of meaning in translation.

More importantly, I found one essay in the English version that has been expurgated from the translation- “Google in China” discussing how Internet companies like Google deal with censorship of Internet by the Chinese government.  It was ironic that the article was knocked out even though both authors expressed certain degree of sympathy with the Chinese government’s censorship policies for the sake of social stability.  Yet, this removed article on censorship illustrates a paradoxical situation in which many Chinese readers find themselves.  On the one hand, our access to information is constrained by the infamous Great Firewall that blocks Facebook, Youtube, Blogspot, as well as by the General Administration of Press and Publication that regulates paper-based publication.  On the other hand, the copyright regime restricts what we could read based on what we could afford: no doubt I have violated both international and domestic copyright laws when I downloaded a free e-copy of “Uncommon Sense” from  Here comes my second thought on copyright in China: unauthorized copying and distribution of materials from abroad may enable at least some Chinese to access information that is not otherwise available and thereby help build a more open and democratic China in the long term.

Under international pressure, the Chinese government is doing everything it can to promote copyright education.  Every year, events are organized all over the country to educate the public about the importance of respecting copyright.  But there is a general confusion over the distinction between unauthorized copying and plagiarism.  It has to do with an obscure principle in copyright laws, namely, the idea-expression dichotomy or the merger doctrine.  Because copyright originated from publishing,  it is is primarily concerned with protecting the expression of works – whereas the ideas expressed are not copyrightable.  In other words, it is illegal to copy or reproduce a work without authorization, but perfectly fine to borrow one’s ideas by paraphrasing.  Yet, if you talk with any scholars or professors in China, you will find that most authors are more concerned if others borrow their ideas without giving them credit.  It is not a big deal if their papers or journal articles are posted online by others without their authorization.  Some of the authors may even be pleased to know their ideas are more widely circulated so long as the works are attributed to their names and are not altered without their permission.  Copyright advocates often argue for more protection to produce stronger incentive for authors to create their works.  But scholars in general do not get paid for publishing academic papers.  In fact, many authors in China have to pay the publishers to get their work in print.  But publishing one’s works is considered a means to an important end: to get one’s works scrutinized and recognized by the academic community.  With certain number of papers published in leading journals, the scholars will get a tenured professorship and other opportunities to advance their career, e.g. providing consulting services for commercial companies.

So what can we do with plagiarism which is technically not illegal under the current copyright regime?  Recently, a software system similar to Turnitin has been adopted by many Chinese universities to check all master’s and PhD thesis against plagiarism.  Yet, it is fairly easy to outsmart the system by paraphrasing the papers one has to copy so that the software cannot find any verbatim copying.  In fact, a more straight-forward solution for plagiarism in China is simply to abolish all copyright protection for the academic works.  According to Linus’ Law, all bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs.  The mechanism of debugging for open source software can also be transplanted to the context of academic writing in China.  By removing all obstacles of accessing the academic papers, any incidents of plagiarism will be easily detected by the public.

In fact, the public has every right to access the scholarly works.  Recently, American scholars are making efforts to remove copyright restriction on their works on the ground that many research papers resulted from research studies sponsored by taxpayers’ money.  It makes little sense if the publishers appropriate the works’ copyright and charge the public again for access.  An even stronger case for free access to Chinese journal articles can be made considering the fact that most major research universities in China are funded by the central government and most papers with academic merit are based on research projects sponsored by the government.

Since the open door policy was adopted in China in early 1980s, the Chinese economy has taken off and Chinese people have enjoyed dramatic improvement of living standards.  Yet, many people are worried that the Chinese have become increasingly obsessed with material goods but ignored the equally important spiritual lives.  We spend more time watching TV and less time reading literature.  One important difference between TV programs and literate works is that while TV programs are freely accessible in China through sponsorship of the advertisers most books are copyrighted commodities that have become increasingly expensive in recent years.  The advent of the Internet may offer new opportunities for the Chinese to access more quality literate works under business models alternative to conventional copyright-based model.  With the help of new technologies, we the Chinese may find ways to circumvent both the government censorship regime and the copyright regime to forge a collective readership that is constructive and beneficial for all.