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Did Slate violate copyright law?

Slate, a popular news site, seems to be openly violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Will the MPAA let Slate's probable violation slide, or will they go after the major media company?

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
4 min read

Slate, a popular news site, seems to be openly violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

That law, much hated in cyberrights and computer security circles, is a thorn in the side to many researchers. The interesting question that we must ask is: Will Hollywood let Slate's probable violation slide, or will they lawyer up and go after the site owned by The Washington Post Co.?

A few days ago, Slate released a video mashup of footage of Hillary Clinton and a few scenes from the movie Election, starring Reese Witherspoon. The video is mildly amusing, and did at least remind me that Election is a funny film that I should probably watch again soon.

Cynthia Brumfield over at IP Democracy discusses the video mashup and briefly explores the issue of fair use:

"It quite literally fits [NBC Universal lawyer Rick Cotton's] idea of what wouldn't be considered fair use under a redefinition. [Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu's ] definition, however, would permit this video under fair use because nothing about it is a substitute for the original 'Election' film. It also, I would argue, enhances the film's value for those who have not seen it."

While I think she brings up an interesting point, I'm fairly certain the issue of fair use, at least in this case, is going to be cut and dry: Slate is in the wrong, and is being pretty blatant in its open infringement of copyright.

The few clips of Election in the Slate video are very high quality. The video is crisp, the sound is clear. As a result, I'd be willing to bet a few bottles of La Fin Du Monde that Slate got the video clips from a DVD. It's almost certainly not from a video cassette tape, and I highly doubt that the Slate team made a digital copy from cable TV.

DVD ripping software is widely available. Personally, I'm a big fan of Handbrake, but there are many other free software solutions out there. These software packages allow people to make a local video copy of a DVD movie. This is not as simple as it sounds, given that all Hollywood DVD discs are encrypted with a once-secret algorithm. The MPAA and others have vigorously gone after anyone who reverse engineered (or even published information on) the inner workings of the CSS algorithm used to encrypt DVDs.

Which brings me to my "favorite" law: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This law, among its many horrible features, makes DVD copying a crime. DVD-ripping software is classed as a circumvention device, the use of which is a big no-no. Section 1201(a)(1)(A) of the U.S. code makes this pretty clear:

No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

Ok, so we've now established that if Slate used DVD footage in its video mashup, then it is almost certainly violating the DMCA. What does that have to do with any possible fair-use defense to a copyright infringement claim? It turns out that to make a successful fair-use claim, you need to have a legitimate, licensed copy of the original work. As the courts wrote:

To invoke the fair use exception, an individual must possess an authorized copy of a literary work (Atari v. Nintendo 975 F.2d 832).

If Slate used DVD-ripping software, its unencrypted, DRM-free copy of the work (which they would have needed to cut and paste bits into their mashup) is in no way authorized. This means, unfortunately for Slate, that it would have no fair-use defense, and could thus face a copyright infringement lawsuit.

While I've spent the majority of this blog post describing potential illegal acts by Slate, the real criminal here is the U.S. Congress for passing the DMCA, and in one single act, putting hundreds of computer security and cyberrights activists at risk. As a Ph.D. student, the DMCA is a complete pain in my ass and makes my research extremely difficult. As a result, I routinely have to submit my projects to Indiana University's general counsel for a sign-off.

So why am I making this blog post? Most people have no idea that DVD ripping is illegal. Most artists, mashup creators, and video-bloggers are in the dark about the potential crimes they may be committing. Furthermore, the RIAA and MPAA have a long history in going after the little guy.

Slate (owned by The Washington Post Co.) has deep pockets. If the MPAA tries to make an issue out of this, it would create huge amounts of publicity, and perhaps lead to calls for an overhaul of the DMCA. (I can dream, right?) At the least, it would force the MPAA to burn through a few bucks.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is neither legal advice nor real legal analysis. Don't make decisions based on my blog ramblings. However, this issue is essentially straight from the final exam in my copyright-law class from last year, so I'm fairly confident that I'm right.

Also, a tip o' the hat goes to Public Knowledge's Alex Curtis, whose offer of a T-shirt inspired this blog post.

Slate could not immediately be reached for comment.