Nobody likes being mocked, especially by someone who has the facts on his side.
Nevertheless, using copyright law to try to silence the mockery isn't likely to win you any new admirers.
This lesson was recently delivered by the city of Inglewood, which sued local resident Joseph Teixeira in March for re-using snippets of official city videos in pointed YouTube critiques of Mayor James T. Butts Jr. The First Amendment Coalition brought the lawsuit to (unfavorable) light May 29, leading to denunciations of the City Council and Butts by a host of media and advocacy groups, including The Times' editorial board, the Volokh Conspiracy and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
This week it was the Guardian's turn. The London-based newspaper asked YouTube to remove an eight-minute video from a provocative cultural commentator who goes by Sargon of Akkad. Sargon's unabashedly politically incorrect -- and wickedly funny -- piece took apart a video by the Guardian's Eliza Anyangwe on damaging stereotypes of Africa supposedly advanced by Western media. The move drew protests from Sargon's supporters, particularly on Twitter, who accused the newspaper of hypocrisy.
What the Guardian did isn't as legally suspect as Inglewood's attempt to claim copyrights over video footage created with tax dollars. But on a public-policy level, it's wrongheaded too.
According to the conservative news site Breitbart London, YouTube took down Sargon's video in response to a request by the Guardian. Sargon then appealed for help on Twitter, saying the newspaper had filed a "false claim" of infringement. The video has since been restored, although it's not entirely clear why.
For its part, the Guardian told Breitbart that "[w]e hope to come to an agreement with Sargon of Akkad and have offered advice on how to engage with Guardian content without breaching copyright." After Breitbart posted its piece, however, Sargon said on Twitter that he hadn't spoken to anyone from the newspaper.
As a creator of copyrighted material, I get how irritating it can be when one's work is copied wholesale and redistributed online. (Insert your joke here about how rarely my words are worth copying.) On the other hand, it would have been hard for Sargon to offer his critique without showing his viewers how she'd made her point. In this respect, the case is like the one in Inglewood, although the latter is more outrageous because the material being copied was a public record, and Teixeira used only snippets of it.
Here's another similarity between the two: It's alarming to see copyright law used to stifle debate in the public square. The Guardian put Anyangwe's opinion on its site to get people to change the way they perceived and discussed Africa. Sargon responded by challenging Anyangwe's characterization of the problem (or rather, to suggest that maybe there isn't one). In other words, the Guardian wanted a debate, and it got one.
What did it expect? Or was it just surprised that anyone was paying attention?