Copyright law is not well understood and, according to a paper by a graduate student at the Georgia Tech College of Computing, this may be having a ‘chilling’ effect on the creativity of Internet users.

Copyright confusion chilling online creativity

"Copyright law is hard. You might break six laws before breakfast without even realizing it." With this dire warning, Casey Fiesler, a PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing College in Atlanta, Georgia, raises the issue of online copyright. Her article summarises the conclusions of a study she has carried out into the impact of copyright law on the creativity of Internet users. Ms Fiesler argues that the problems stem largely from the widespread confusion over legislation governing online creation. Copyright law was established to protect writers and artists at a time when it was still perfectly feasible to maintain full control over communication channels. Nowadays, however, anyone and everyone has the technical means to produce creative content, whether we are talking about a meme image, a parody clip, a remix or sincere fan fiction. Nevertheless, it seems that most web creators are pretty hazy about what is and is not permissible under copyright law. In her article, Casey Fiesler tells how on an interactive help forum an Internet user was asking others whether it was legal to write fan fiction (i.e. stories drawing on existing characters and worlds created by popular authors). “47 replies and four different interpretations of the law later,” says Ms Fiesler, the questioner was still far from being able to grasp the legal situation. She argues strongly that this general confusion is actually holding back creativity.


Uncertainty leads to self-censorship

Some 13% of all messages posted on the YouTube discussion forum centre on copyright issues – one of the highest percentages on the sharing sites that Ms Fiesler investigated. This provides a good illustration of just how worried Internet users are about this subject.  The consequences are that “when confronted with a potentially wrongful takedown notice” targeting material published online, “it is more likely” that people will play safe and stop uploading their creations to open sharing platforms so as to avoid “the risk of getting in trouble for copyright infringement.” In fact, says the article, the general confusion surrounding copyright rules results in Internet users practising self-censorship. On the one hand, those thinking of posting content fear that their work will be taken down by the host site. On the other hand – perhaps paradoxically – Internet users also fear that sharing platforms do not afford adequate protection to their creations and that they might therefore be copied, pirated or plagiarised. Casey Fiesler points to the “chilling effect” which occurs “when you decide not to do something that you probably should be able to do, for fear of legal sanctions.”


Potential solutions

Apart from pointing out this double anxiety – on the one hand of having your work plagiarised and on the other of being taken to court for infringing someone’s copyright – Fiesler’s paper puts forward some possible solutions. She suggests that discussion forum moderators ought to provide clear answers on copyright questions, thus avoiding leaving Internet users to interpret the law all by themselves. However, the major sharing platforms are perhaps not ready to stick their necks out in this way as they would then also be liable in the event of a lawsuit. Consequently, in order to stay on the safe side, sharing sites tend to go much further in the warnings they post than actual copyright law does. In taking this stance they are helping to perpetuate the “chilling effect”, reckons Casey Fiesler. Meanwhile a wider debate is currently raging on such copyright questions. The European Union has instigated the Copyright for Creativity project, recognising that the education sector is facing many of the same concerns over legitimate appropriation of materials, and requests to Twitter for content removal have been rising sharply, mainly for copyright reasons.

By Guillaume Scifo