2021-02-15

Copyright, Police Interactions, Transparency, and Corporate Dependence

When I started this blog when I was in high school, I was quite interested (at least at a superficial level) in issues of technology law, including the abuse of copyright & patent laws. (This is an example of such a post on this blog from 12 years ago, when my maturity & writing skills were far less than they are now.) Since then, my interests have shifted a lot, so I don't follow news stories about technology law abuses as much as I did in high school or college, I certainly don't post about these issues so often, and I'd like to think my reactions on this blog are a bit more carefully considered now than they were 12 years ago. That said, as far as my older interests go, I saw a story on the website Vice, by Dexter Thomas, about how a few police officers in Beverly Hills, California, have been found to have played copyrighted music from their phones loudly when they believe they are being filmed by an ordinary person. Essentially, those particular police officers have depended on zealous copyright enforcement algorithms on social media & video sharing platforms like Instagram & YouTube to ensure that any ordinary person who tries to post a video on such a popular corporate platform will have that video automatically removed due to copyright violations. If the police officer deliberately chooses to interact with the person recording while the song is playing, that means that even if the person recording decides to mute that section of the audio before uploading, the audio from that interaction will be removed one way or another. Additionally, on many sites, if the person uploading such videos ends up doing this multiple times, that person can be blocked temporarily or permanently from uploading videos in the future.

On the one hand, my beliefs about police behavior & copyright law are such that this behavior disappoints me on both fronts (as I believe this is a gross abuse of the spirit of copyright law and of trust in police officers), but on the other hand, I can't help but appreciate the ingenuity of this "solution" to the "problem" of being recorded. Additionally, it is worth noting that the main instance of this happening as described in this story is in a police station, where it can be argued that police departments could rightfully enforce rules against using cell phones; that said, the story also mentions other instances of this happening in outdoor public spaces. In any case, beyond these issues, this story has raised several broader questions in my mind, which I list below, and which I do not intend to be merely rhetorical.

  1. Would police officers be fined for broadcasting such music as a "public performance" in an unauthorized way?
  2. Should this motivate an alliance between groups aiming to reform police departments & groups aiming to reform copyright laws?
  3. Should this motivate greater use of the site Wikileaks or other existing sites, or creation of a similar site, as a well-known not-for-profit repository to document police abuses (instead of relying on for-profit platforms that might zealously enforce copyright laws)?
  4. What should be the mechanism for determining which videos of police officers get publicized, in order to ensure that trivial misunderstandings don't get blown out of proportion at the expense of the livelihood of the police officer?

There are certainly many other questions that could be asked about this issue going forward. In any case, it is unfortunate that enforcement of copyright laws is being twisted in this way, but it will be interesting to see how similar cases develop in the future.

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