Classic Post: Analysis on The Lane Hartwell “Bubble” Controversy


Note: Due to a limited posting schedule during the month of October on days where I can not write regular post, I am taking time out to highlight some of the older posts that have become pillars of the site.

Original Post

In December 2007, something of a perfect copyright storm emerged. The Richter Scales, an a cappella group well-known in tech circles for its parodies of the industry, released a song entitled “Here Comes Another Bubble”, set to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Joel. It was an instant viral video on the Web, racking up millions of view on YouTube and other sites.

However, the video used photographs and other images from various sources, none of which were attributed. One of the photos, a picture Owen Thomas, was taken by famous freelance photographer Lane Hartwell, who is known to be very aggressive in enforcing her copyright.

She approached the band with objections about the unattributed use of her work. Though the band provided attribution in the video notes on YouTube, Hartwell wasn’t happy with the compromise and eventually filed a DMCA takedown notice against the video, which resulted in the work being removed.

What followed was a controversy that deeply divided the Web. Many felt Hartwell had overreacted, filing a takedown against what was in all likelihood a fair use of her work. Others felt it was the band at fault for not providing attribution to any of the work used in the first place or, even better, seeking out appropriately-licensed material.

The controversy seemed to reach out to all corners of the Web and continued until the band released a new version of the video, with Hartwell’s image removed and a proper credit roll for the film.

Looking Back

A recent comment to the post drew my attention back to it. It was a case that seemed to fall off the radar almost as fast as it came up. Even though it was a major Web storm for a period, it seemed to die off rather quickly and, at first glance, it appear that it hasn’t had any real lasting impact.

Part of the reason for that is that this really was a perfect storm. An extremely viral video with absolutely no attribution but heavy use of images from other sources, a photographer who is very aggressive in protecting her work and a flawed takedown system that did not allow for the item in question to be removed without deleting the entire work it was within. It doesn’t seem that we’ve had such a storm since then and it may be unlikely we will.

Part of the reason is that YouTube has since revamped its takedown policy, though most of the changes have focused on audio and it does seem that more YouTube users are becoming aware of the need to attribute where they get their content from, even when they intend to make a fair use of it. It seems most people are wiser about these issues, possibly in part because of this.

The other reason though is that this particular incident was so avoidable. Either side, could have taken steps to head off this explosion but both seemed determined to press their case as far as they could, perhaps not fully appreciating where it could lead. Granted, it made both household names in tech circles, I seriously doubt that either are grateful for the headaches and firestorm.

But if there is a lasting impact of this, I hope it is that it brought these issues to the forefront and both remixers and copyright holders learn from it. However, if the recent study by Creative Commons is any clue, things may be better but there is still a long way to go, considering that 15% of remixers say that they “rarely” or “never” give attribution.

There is clearly still danger here. Hopefully though we can avoid another blow up like this one.

The Video

With credits, of course…

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