Copyright Law and Political Ads
The Seattle Times has an editorial today that has finally pushed me into writing something about the intersection of copyright and political advertisement. For those of you who don’t wish to read the article, it’s a piece from the Times’ Editorial Board calling on Darcy Burner to renounce an ad put out by the DCCC. The add uses a snippet from a TVW broadcast where Rep. Dave Reichert (R) said sometimes he listed to the GOP leadership and sometimes he doesn’t. Unfortunately for him, he said it such that a little pruning makes it sound like he’s a GOP waterboy.
But the Editorial is not just upset about the careful choice of words, they are upset because it infringes upon the copyright of WTV. So the obvious question is, does it? I haven’t done a ton of research on the topic, but my gut says copyright is not an issue here.
First, the footage is being used in a political ad, which means it has ample First Amendment protection (in fact, as political speech it has the most First Amendment protection of all other speech). Second, while TVW isn’t a governmental entity, it is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation (meaning it has to be for the public good) and it receives nearly 100% of all funding from the Washington State government. Third, the footage is of a public official making public commentary, which means his words and appearance are newsworthy. There has always been an exception to copyright when the news is at stake (see INS v. AP… although the law is muddled here).
There was a Washington Post editorial a few years back about how President Bush rarely gives press conferences, choosing instead to do one-on-one interviews with private news outlets (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, etc). As a result, historical snafus on camera become the private copyright of the company which can be forced out of circulation by the White House by threatening to never grant another exclusive interview.
Thankfully Bush has been giving more press conferences of late, so this issue never really matured. But imagine, for a moment, if it did. Would the courts actually uphold a copyright infringement case against a political organization for using footage in an effort to broaden political discourse? I’m fairly certain that was not the purpose of copyright law.
In fact, the Times’ Board shot itself in the foot with the following line.
Rather, it is about the use of copyrighted TVW footage without permission, which would never have been granted in this case.
The purpose of the copyright is to ensure those who take the effort to make the copy are properly compensated. To say that the owner of the copyright would refuse the request, even if properly compensated, means the copyright law is being abused.
…and I’m not even going to talk about fair use.
One more thought on this topic regarding YouTube. I’ve been reading some election blogs which have taken to distributing political ads, and their unique commentary, via the popular video sharing service. This is often the only way to see footage of ads which have been pulled from the air for reasons like embarrassing the candidate, provoking public outrage, spreading untruths, being stupid. These ads live on via YouTube, reviewed and distributed among the political junkies.
Are they legit? First analysis says it’s copyright infringement. They aren’t copying a few seconds, they are taking the whole kitten-kaboodle. No obvious fair use defense here. But it is political commentary, so it has the whole political speech component. Also, you’ve got the fact that the distribution is done by private individuals, so the initial producers (the one who pulled the ad in the first place) can claim its not their fault while continuing to get a little bang for their buck on an ad they were forced to pull off the air.
Which means that politics and market forces are going to be more important than the law, but it’s still an interesting question.