Tuesday, October 21, 2003

It shouldn't happen to an IT Specialist



I got one of the most deeply unpleasant surprises of my life when I got home last night. No, we'd not been burgled - sitting on my doormat was a solicitor's letter from Belgium (of all places) citing Extra-Life for plagiarism of a news article.


To say I was mortified was an understatement - it's not every day you find out someone wants to sue you - or rather, the website you're the billing contact for.

Basically, one of the users on the forum did a simple cut-and-paste on a news item he thought came from a Public Domain source, fully and explicitly credited the source in the first line of the post and posted it in the News folder of the State forum. This post automatically got posted as a News item on the website, due to the little PHP wizard we have to do this kind of thing.


The copyright holder got wind of it - probably via an Internet Trawler bot that they use to ensure that their material isn't appearing where it shouldn't, and I have essentially a compensation demand for 1300 Euros sitting on my bedroom desk, which has to be paid before the 15th of November, or they'll take me to court.


Now, obviously I can't pay the settlement - not only do I not have £900 lying around idly to spare - I wasn't responsible for the reproduction of the article, and I don't think it's fair for me to be held responsible for every article, post or item on the website, because it's essentially an open forum. I'm just the sucker who gets sent the bandwidth bills. State isn't an organisation or company - it's a group of well meaning internet games geeks who like to have their own server.


I did the only sensible thing - I removed the offending article, as receiving the letter was the first indication to anyone using the website that a copyright had been infringed, and immediately posted a public and unreserved apology on the website.


This morning, I posted a formal written apology to the lawyers representing the publishing firm, fully explaining how the situation had arisen, and that how the individual user who posted the article had acted in good faith, and that there had been no intention of infringing a copyright, nor was there any intention to deprive the publishing firm revenue.


The legalities of this case are really rather murky - it's very difficult to find a precedent for this kind of situation - an internet forum being sued for a cut-and-paste? It seems ridiculous on the surface of it - but I can completely understand the company's stance, and the reason for sending the letter. However, I think it's a little unfair to simply demand money when we had no prior knowledge that an infringement was being committed. A simple warning would have sufficed.


Fingers crossed, it won't need to go to court, and that they will settle for the removal of the article and the apology, but if it does go to court, we have a good defense under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act of 1988 for Fair Use of copyrighted material used for Current Affairs reporting - which states that no copyright is infringed if the material is credited - which it was.


Even so - it's pretty fucking scary that a completely innocent cut-and-paste can turn around and bite you in the ass. There's nothing more to be done until the law firm replies, which may take a week or so - and unfortunately patience isn't my strong suit.

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