Copyright alerts unnecessary roughness?

Times Staff Writer

Warning: Copyright threats on DVDs and TV broadcasts may be misstating the law.

A high-tech trade group made that charge Wednesday to the Federal Trade Commission, alleging deceptive trade practices for the scary copyright warnings before movies and during sports broadcasts.

The Computer and Communications Industry Assn. said it was trying to protect the public’s legal rights from overzealous media companies, which in turn said they were simply trying to protect their content.


Movie studios, sports leagues and book publishers warn people about unauthorized uses of their content, but the trade group argued that many of those uses actually were permitted under so-called fair-use provisions of copyright law.

“You don’t have to put the whole damn statute in, but what you say has to be reflective of what the law actually says,” said Edward J. Black, president of the group whose members include Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

That’s not what happens, he said, when a “for private use only” warning flashes on the screen before a DVD movie, or when an announcer during a National Football League game intones the familiar warning that any use of the “pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent is prohibited.”

Copyright law allows some public uses, such as by a teacher or a student in a classroom, and does not require permission from the copyright owner for fair-use purposes, such as criticism, commentary or parodies.

The trade group wants that reflected in the warnings.

Brian Banner, a trademark and copyright attorney in Washington, said the warnings were incomplete rather than inaccurate.

That causes confusion and makes people unwilling to risk the wrath of the FBI for using clips of a movie or baseball game, even in ways the law allows.

An FTC spokeswoman said the complaint would be reviewed.

NBC Universal Inc., one of the studios named in the complaint, called it “frivolous.” The media giant said its warning labels adhered to “long-accepted legal standards” and argued that some of the trade group’s member companies included similar copyright warnings on their software.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league was trying to protect the “valuable rights” of its telecasts, and that viewers understand that the warnings prohibit violations of the law, not any private or non-commercial use.

Fair-use advocates have long ignored the warnings because they’re misleading, but they intimidate average people who haven’t studied the law, said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group.

“They’re based on what the content industry does best,” she said of the warnings, “which is scare the living daylights out of people.”

Other companies named by the high-tech trade group included Major League Baseball, movie studios Morgan Creek Productions and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. and book publishers Harcourt and Penguin.