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August 27, 2013

The logical fallacies of Mike Masnick-2

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It’s time once again for us to delve into the logical fallacies of Mike Masnick. Previously, we dealt with Mike committing the bifurcation fallacy. In today’s installment, it’s Mike committing the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Mike has often broadly asserted that one of the many sins of copyright is that it is used to facilitate censorship. So anytime any proponent of copyright points out how copyright facilitates the creation and distribution of speech, and thus is a friend of free speech and the First Amendment, Mike is quick to retort something like “How can anyone claim with a straight face that copyright supports the First Amendment when it is so often used for censorship!”

Like he did here, for instance.

But the reason this is an example of Mike begging the question is that he embeds his conclusion in his definition of censorship. Because, to Mike Masnick, censorship means that Mike can’t have anything he wants, anytime he wants, any way he wants. And so anything (like technical protection measures, DRM, or DMCA takedowns) that stands in the way of Mike having access to anything he wants is CENSORSHIP.

Except that it isn’t. That isn’t actually what censorship is, Mike. You’re assuming an indefensibly broad definition of censorship, and then arguing from there. It’s illegitimate.

Remember when San Francisco TV station KVTO got pranked and accidentally ran funny (to me at least, admittedly less so to the station and the pilots), false Korean names? The TV station submitted a DMCA takedown notice asserting its copyright, not doubt in an attempt to expunge its mistake from the Internet archives.

To Masnick, this is censorship. But, of course it ISN’T. The TV station DOES own the copyright to its broadcast, and has the right to have its property taken down from YouTube, regardless of what their motivation is, because it’s their property. Yes, it’s lame, and no, they will never succeed in expunging this embarrassing episode from Internet memory, so yes, it is a waste of time and will fail, but no, it’s not CENSORSHIP. It might be stupid, but it’s not censorship.

Almost all of Masnick’s other supposed examples of copyright used to censor are similarly illegitimate, although a couple of them are even lamer because they’re just examples of simple mistakes. This isn’t censorship in any useful or meaningful sense of the word.

I was reading the other day that musician Billy Joel had written an autobiography, and was close to publication with an advance and a contract and a title (The Book of Joel) and everything, but at the last minute withdrew it. He just changed his mind and decided to not share that bit of his property with the world. He decided to keep his content to himself and not make it available to the public.

Was that censorship? Not in any meaningful sense, but by Mike Masnick’s logic, Billy Joel engaged in an act of censorship because he used his rights over his content as a “mechanism of control,” and the result is that there is some bit of Billy Joel content somewhere that someone might want to have access to, and now they can’t. Because of course it’s the users’ demands that are supreme to Masnick, not the creators’ and owners’ rights. That incorrect assumption, by the way, is the root of much of Masnick’s wrong thinking on copyright.

Censorship means many things. When I’m sitting at the dinner table and a thought critical of a member of my family crosses my mind but I think better than to express it verbally, that is self-censorship. It’s technically a form of censorship, but it’s not censorship that is meaningful in any important policy sense. Nor was Billy Joel’s decision to withdraw his biography.

It’s not censorship if someone decides they don’t want their property shared with the world on the Internet or through YouTube, and if someone wrests their property away from them and posts it on YouTube, it’s not censorship for the property owner to ask for it to be taken down, regardless of their motivation. It’s their property--they have a right to control it. If you want to talk about a “proper balance” in copyright between content creators and consumers, you sure as heck can’t put creators’ rights at the bottom of the list, and consumers’ demands at the top.

So Masnick has censorship backwards. What we might call a “censorship offense” is when content is blocked or restricted from the public contrary to the will of the content creator for some reason that is external to the content creator. This is censorship in the sense that most of us use it and understand it, like banning books, movies or political speech. It’s not when the content creator acts to withhold their own content. That’s just not censorship.

People who create content generally want the public to have access to it. When some external actor prevents them from getting their content to the public, THAT’s closer to a useful, meaningful understanding of censorship than is Masnick’s nutty definition.

We most often think of censorship as being done by government against the will of the content creator, and that’s certainly the most offensive form. But I’m happy to include in a useful definition of censorship non-government actors as well. If an ISP or social media platform blocks access to some content against the wishes of the content creator\owner, I’m willing to label that censorship (though I’m also willing to justify certain types of such censorship, although that’s another topic for another day).

So no, Mike, copyright doesn’t facilitate censorship, given any kind of a meaningful understanding of censorship. Only if you beg the question and assume a false definition of censorship that incorporates your skewed view that the demands of users should trump the rights of creators and owners can you argue that copyright facilitates censorship.

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