Tuesday 15 March 2011

Colonel Mustard is not in the Library with a copyright claim form

My friend Sym came up with a neat joke:

Playing Big Society Cluedo. It's easier than normal Cluedo because there isn't a library.

and promptly tweeted it. Much retweeted it ended up being used by the BBC's Now Show, without attribution of any kind. Sym is a generous soul and I doubt that worried him too much but he mentioned it on his (private) facebook wall.

As regular readers will know I'm not exactly a copyright maximalist, but I do find it unattractive that large and powerful organisations that would certainly pursue you if you used their intellectual property appear to be quite happy to use other people's so long as those other people are too small to matter very much. I jokingly suggested I'd help draft his claim form and that lead him to wondering whether there could be any copyright in so slight a thing as a tweeted joke.

Unsurprisingly there are lots of answers on the internet, as a cursory google search will show. One site says categorically "no"; an article in the WIPO magazine thinks "it depends" and there's even a site called canyoucopyrightatweet.com written by a US attorney which again comes down on the side of "it depends". Unfortunately all the really detailed discussion relates to US law, not European or English law. While there's some internationally harmonisation of copyright, there are still significant differences.

So, what of English law. Well, English copyright protects, amongst other things any "original literary work". Most tweets are not going to be original - in fact in many cases that is the whole point - but some, like Sym's joke, seem quite capable of being so. Certainly, I am quite sure that he came up with the joke first.

A "literary work" does not have to be high art. Indeed section 3 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 says that a

“literary work” means any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung

so its really quite a broad term. In a relatively recent case which rejected a claim for copyright in the names of commands for an airline booking system, Mr Justice Pumfrey was quite clear that single words, at least on their own, could not be copyrighted. In the 2009 Infopaq case, the European Court of Justice were prepared to accept that an 11 word textual extract could be the subject of copyright and last year in the case of Meltwater Mrs Justice Proudman agreed that, whatever might have been the position under English law, the decision in Infopaq made it plain that as a matter of European law copyright could exist in newspaper headlines provided they were original enough.

So it seems to me that a tweet, provided it is sufficiently original, can be the subject of copyright.

But as I said in an earlier post the existence of copyright is only half the question. What would or would not infringe a short humorous tweet? I haven't heard the particular episode of the Now Show in question but if they read it out they have certainly infringed (and twitter's terms of service don't appear to let them off the hook). If, on the other hand, they only paraphrased the joke, the question is more difficult. Sym might be able to claim ownership of the particular expression of his joke, but he cannot copyright the idea that lies behind it. That idea is free and open to all.

The difficulty with this neat distinction (called the "idea/expression dichotomy") is that courts recognise that you can infringe by copying something more abstract than the exact words used. This should be obvious when you consider that a translation of a work (which will usually use quite different words, unless its into "pirate") is a potential infringement of the original work. Too close a copy of the plot or characterisation in a play (say) would be an infringement even if there had been a good deal of rewriting and reworking.

How on earth this would apply to something as small and neat as a tweet is anybody's guess. I suspect that it is only a matter of time before someone tries to test the question.


In the comments, Sym has helpfully provided the quote from the Now Show:

Someone amused me no end on twitter the other day, ok, when they answered twitter's question 'what are you doing?' by writing: "I'm playing big society cluedo, it's easier than normal cluedo because there isn't a library"

Clearly, if there is copyright in the tweet, this looks like a potential infringement because the whole tweet has been copied pretty much verbatim. But, could there be a defence. There is, of course, no such thing as "fair use" in English law. But quoting a tweet could be "fair dealing for purposes of criticism or review" which is a defence under section 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This requires that:

  • the use is fair dealing
  • the purpose of the use is criticism or review of a work (not necessarily the work quoted) or works
  • the use is accompanied by sufficient acknowledgement

Normally it would not be "fair dealing" to use the whole of a work, but where the work is as short as a tweet it is likely to be impossible to use it critically in any meaningful way without quoting the whole of it. "Someone amused me" probably counts as "criticism".

What about attribution? Section 178 of the act defines "sufficient acknowledgement" as "an acknowledgement identifying the work in question by its title or other description, and identifying the author". "Someone" doesn't seem like enough to me. Although its just possible to argue that "Someone" means "Someone on twitter" and that it is thereby possible identify the author by searching on twitter for the origin of the tweet. Seems like a long shot to me.

Update: I realise with some embarrassment that I didn't link to Lillian Edward's blogpost on this very question.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Don't return your census form early

This seems a topic that has generated much discussion, so I thought I'd comment on it.

In the United Kingdom we are having a census on Sunday 27th March 2011. It can be completed online or by sending back a census form that has been delivered to most households by now. The census is being carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Their website says, under the heading "When to return the questionnaire":

Census day is Sunday 27 March. Your answers should be about your household on this day. Please submit or return your completed questionnaire before, on or after this date.

On any analysis that seems a bit odd. Surely you should only be returning your census form after the date of the census since, though you can have a pretty good guess what the answers to the many questions might be, you can't know for certain.

As far as I can see, the ONS is simply wrong to suggest that early return is OK. This Census is governed by the Census (England) Regulations 2010, regulation 10 of which states:

10.—(1) Every prescribed person to whom a household pack has been delivered or on whose behalf delivery was taken under these Regulations must, on the day after census day or as soon after as is reasonably practicable—

(a)complete the copy of questionnaire H1 included in the pack, place it in the reply-paid envelope provided and send the questionnaire to the Authority by post; or

(b)return the information requested by questionnaire H1 electronically using such an electronic system as the Authority may provide for this purpose and in accordance with the instructions included in the accompanying pack.

Which quite clearly does not allow an early census return. Failure to comply with regulation 10 is made a criminal offence (albeit a very minor one) by section 8 of the Census Act 1920. There doesn't appear to be, in the regulations or the act, any power for the ONS to disapply these provisions or vary when the census returns may be made.

I'm not a census lawyer, so maybe I'm missing something here. What's more I doubt that it would be easy to prosecute someone for doing what the ONS has precisely told them to do. It still seems to me to be an odd way to run a census.

Friday 4 March 2011

Phone hacking and copyright

Hugo at the 1709 blog asks a question about a recent case involving 2 of those who may have been victims in the News of the World phone hacking affair (as wikipedia calls it). Before I try to answer the question, some background.

From information obtained from the Metropolitan Police, Andrew Gray and Steve Coogan both suspected that their voicemail had been accessed by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator at the centre of the affair. They sued him — apparently for breach of confidence.

The claimants felt that the Mr Mulcaire's defence left a lot more questions unanswered. For example who had instructed him to intercept voicemails; to whom had he passed on the information; and who else had he been targeting. In order to press him further they each made a request for information asking him a number of questions which, unsurprisingly, he did not appear to wish to answer. In order to resist answering the claimants' requests, Mr Mulcaire relied on the common law right not to be required to answer questions that might incriminate oneself.

The right, known as the "privilege against self-incrimination" is not an absolute one. There are a number of statutory exceptions to it. For example section 31 of the Theft Act 1968 prevents someone from relying on the privilege in proceedings for recovery of property (where things they say might well implicate them in a charge of theft). In a similar manner, section 72 of the Senior Courts Act 1981, lifts the privilege in "proceedings for infringement of rights pertaining to any intellectual property or for passing off".

The phrase "intellectual property" means different things to different people and is much misused. There is no single statutory definition either. I found it interested to read that the court was shown a sample of 20 different enactments where "intellectual property" is defined in different ways and for different purposes and, in the Income Tax Act 2007, in three different parts of the same act. In section 72 it is defined thus:

"intellectual property" means any patent, trade mark, copyright, design right, registered design, technical or commercial information or other intellectual property;

Now the defendants contended that "commercial information" meant only commercial information which was protectable as intellectual property (for which see the other items in the list). The claimants (correctly in my view) said this didn't make sense — obviously what was meant was an extended definition to include "normal" intellectual property of the kind we are used to talking about such as copyright but extended to cover things that would normally not be treated as intellectual property, such as commercial information.

Mr Justice Vos agreed. The defendant lost his privilege and the claimants were allowed to ask some of their questions. Others, the judge thought, were not strictly relevant and constituted "a fishing expedition" (as lawyers call it). An earlier and very similar case, this time involving Nicola Phillips as the victim, had already been decided in the same way and headed to the Court of Appeal. The hope is that all three cases will be joined on appeal and a decision given.

Given how topical phone hacking has been, and the fact that many readers of this blog are involved in industries where confidential information could be intercepted wrongly, I thought this was an interesting case to talk about.

Now to Hugo's question. He asks the question that may be in some of your lips: why didn't the claimants bring a claim for infringement of copyright? Then there would have been no doubt about the application of section 72 and no need to have the argument in the first place. He asks:

Could the claimants simply have relied on the argument that Mulcaire had in any case infringed copyright in sound recordings by recording and transcribing the voicemails? Copyright in sound recordings is owned by their ‘producer’, who is ‘the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the making of the sound recording are undertaken’. Would this be Steve Coogan and Andrew Gray – or would it be Vodafone?

Note that we aren't interested in copyright in the words that were recorded on the victims' voice mail. Even if they qualified for copyright protection — one assumes that "hi, its me" probably does not, whereas something with more substance probably does — the person who left the message would be the author of the words and therefore the copyright would belong to the caller or their employer.

Copyright does protect sound recordings, though for a shorter period than copyright in literary, musical or dramatic works. As Hugo points out, section 9 of the Copyright Act makes the "producer" of a sound recording its "author" (and therefore potential first owner of the copyright) and section 178 gives us the definition.

The nearest authority I can think of is A&M Records v Video Collection International [1995] EMLR 25 which concerned the ownership of an arrangement of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" created for Torvill and Dean's 1994 competition entry. The skater's agent asked a conductor to do the job. He found an arranger, paid for an arrangement of the work suitable for the skaters and then conducted it in a studio he had hired with an orchestra he had put together. The court found that while the conductor had clearly made the recording, it was the agent who had made the "arrangements necessary for the making of the sound recording". I thin this indicates that the courts take a high level view of "producership" and so it would be Mr Gray and Mr Coogan who made the arrangements and were the "producers" even if everything else was done by their mobile telephone company.

But wait, the story doesn't end there. There's no point asking whether something is protected by copyright, without also asking whether there has been infringement. In this case, if Mr Mulcaire had transcribed the telephone conversations, rather than just listened to them and made notes of the facts contained in them, would he have "copied" them? We are all used to the extended definition that section 17 gives to copying of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, which includes "reproducing the work in any material form", but there is no such extended definition for sound recordings. To transcribe a sound recording is not to "copy" it since no new sound recording is made.

So, Mr Mulcaire might have infringed the copyright in the words recorded but that copyright didn't belong to Messrs Gray and Coogan. They probably did own the sound recording copyright, but that wasn't infringed. Their lawyers obviously did know what they were doing (as we suspected) in only suing for breach of confidence. If there's a moral here its that having multiple copyrights in the same "thing" makes for a more complicated analysis.