All posts by Natalie Morcos

Web Developer 2013–2014 Associate Design Editor 2012–2013

Takedown shakedown

You just posted a sweet, sweet remix on YouTube last night and you can’t wait to get home and see how many views it’s racked up. You sit down, log in, and instantly go from hopeful to crestfallen. You’ve received notice that your video contains infringing content and has been taken down. You certainly didn’t mean to infringe upon anyone’s intellectual property, but you’re unsure if there’s anything you can do about it now.

Intellectual property is a term that’s thrown around pretty loosely these days, a catch-all for the ownership of intangibles, not pointing to any one singular thing. It’s a misleading term, inclining one to believe there might actually be some overarching and unifying policy behind it. There’s not, and there’s been some controversy around how it seems to paint itself as doing so.

Implicit in the term is a bias. Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains: “It does require some, you know, puppet master pulling the strings, but there is reason to think that the people who are pushing for thicker and stronger copyright term benefit from (A) all these things being conflated and (B) them all being called property.” There is a stronger sense of ownership, a sense in which when it’s called “property,” something as intangible as an idea might be perceived of as belonging squarely to one person or one party and not to another.

Free software activist Richard Stallman corroborates: the term “lumps three different things, with three different sets of laws, into one confusing pot and then corporations get to benefit from the confusion.” When we talk about intellectual property, what we’re actually talking about is one of copyright, patent, or trademark, each of which is in effect toward a very different end. It is a mistake to think these generalize into a coherent whole. Higgins emphasizes that “copyright and patent are very different, but even more so with copyright and trademark — the purpose of the law is almost opposite.”

Whereas trademark law is designed to protect consumers, to let them know what they are buying and that the instances of branding they run into are genuine, copyright and patent are intended to protect the rights of creators, encouraging them to continue creating by helping them gain recognition for their efforts.

Copyright protects the expression of ideas, often in the form of artistic works.

Patents protect the ideas themselves, encouraging their publication by granting a temporary monopoly over derivative manufacturing.

The three areas aren’t all equally broken. Copyright, says Higgins, is “disproportionately deserving” of our attention. While the patent policy arena certainly is charged, the major powers are more evenly distributed across the playing fields. Corporations both generate patents and license them, and so there is equal industrial pressure coming from both sides. In copyright, however, on the one side there’s an industry churning out copyrighted content, and on the other there’s just individuals, smaller groups who want to continue creating and who don’t have legal teams, and so, Higgins explains, “the pressure’s always been in one direction. It’s just been a ratchet towards thicker and stronger and more convoluted copyright laws.”

There’s a sense in which the tightening of the copyright law Higgins refers to might not be interpreted as such. Instead, the newer policies might be regarded as maintaining previous levels of severity but with updated terms to account for the advent of new technologies. Higgins concedes this is one narrative. Fair use and fair dealing, the provisions which govern how and where copyrighted material can be used without infringement in the US and Canada respectively, have gotten stronger, and so, Higgins says, “the course of terms has to have gotten longer to balance that out.”

However, there’s also a sense in which it’s not that simple. What the copyright system is doing now could be likened to what in the past would have been stopping bootleggers with major operations. Previously, infringement wasn’t possible without some serious real estate and capital to get you going. It likely involved a factory, a work fleet, and involvement in some supply chain. In the digital age, the bootlegger and his whole operation have been reduced to some guy with an internet connection. The barriers to production are incredibly low.

This shift we’ve observed in the digital era complicates things. “I think there’s something fundamentally different about going after that bootlegger when it’s just somebody with a DVD drive,” Higgins comments, “especially because the way we know how to do that, the way the only laws have been proposed, is to say that anyone who has a DVD drive … is potentially one of these bootlegger who 15 years ago would have had a factory.”

So, the recourse policy makers have taken has been to simply regulate everyone with a computer, and that, says Higgins, “is a really grave problem. It’s not even just regulation, it’s making sure that you know we can surveil anyone and everyone in order to find out if they’re copying, and that kind of thing is a really unprecedented intrusion into the life of people.” The policy backing these kinds of actions is arguably qualitatively different than previous iterations of policy designed to shut down coordinated operations.

Since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed in 1998, US service providers must uphold a “Notice and Takedown” regime in order to waive themselves of the legal liability associated with their hosted content. Canada has a similar but slightly less stringent “Notice and Notice” policy, first legislated in 2005, and reified in the the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012.

However, with the majority leading Internet services being hosted in the States, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google included, Canadians and other groups increasingly have to be aware of the policies to which our southern neighbours are holding these companies, and they’re not pretty.

In order to uphold the Notice and Takedown regime, service providers are required to have an infrastructure in place which allows people to file notices on suspicious content. Upon receiving the notice, the provider then has 24 hours to take down the allegedly infringing content, or else bear the full burden of the legal liability attached to it.

This system isn’t great. On the one hand, it provides an immediate silencing vector for disgruntled parties. The issuer of the notice isn’t required to provide any proof of copyright infringement to initiate this process. Instead, the onus is on the owner of the content to file a counter notice after the fact if they feel the takedown was in error.

The Chilling Effects clearinghouse, an archive of DMCA takedown notices, shows us that not many individuals actually take this kind of pushback upon themselves, and unsurprisingly, because stepping into the line of fire of copyright litigation is something which, in the US, could wind up costing you up to $150,000, a nontrivial amount by any standards. As a result, this system sees a large number of non-infringing works go down and stay down, limiting the speech of others who were never doing anything wrong.

On the other hand, the Notice and Takedown system, when it is reporting true infringement, effects change that is hopelessly impermanent. Higgins likens it to a whack-a-mole situation, where one infringement is beaten down only to see the same thing pop up in a different spot a few seconds later. He concedes that, “if your goal is to make sure that there’s no infringing content on the internet, then the tools we have now are DMCA takedown notices and you[‘d] have to file literally millions of those a week.” Indeed, Google Search gets around seven million takedown orders per week, not including those issued on any of their secondary assets like YouTube. “You’d need new tools,” Higgins concludes. “The takedown notices that we have just don’t do that job.”

One thing’s for sure: it doesn’t matter which side of the law you’re standing on, the policies in their current instantiation are definitely, definitely broken. At least in the US and the EU and Australia, lawmakers have declared that copyright law is open for revision, but those revisions just can’t get here soon enough.

Heiko Julien 27/M/Chicago

Somewhere near the end of the last decade, an acutely self-aware, Adderall-ridden wind blew through the depths of the Internet. The trees stirred in the tumblr forest as slowly, a new vanguard of writers, led by alt-lit pioneer Tao Lin, started to come into prominence.

This new brand of writing was tied to the Internet in a way that hadn’t previously been possible. Distributed primarily through blogs, eZines, Twitter accounts, and journals, it was characterized by intense self-reflection. Alt-lit expresses contemporary life, examined. The works come off as both juvenile and profound — adult topics addressed with a child-like directness, punctuated by home-cooked image macros, gifs, and collaged jpegs, yet with undertones of validation, existential angst, and self-medication.

We connected with Heiko Julien, one of alt-lit’s most coveted authors, to talk about his art.

The Varsity: Mark Leyner described your book, I Am Ready to Die a Violent Death, as “[p]rose that actually feels like the 21st century.” What do you think that means?

Heiko Julien: I think a lot of people have weird ideas about what “writing” is — that it has to be reflective of a specific kind of intellect or cultural values. Like, you have to sound like someone’s idea of a “smart” person. But when we break down a lot of these supposed signs of wisdom, we’ll probably find that they’re just a lot of fashion and politics, like so much else.

Writing to me is about communication. And communication is strange in that the same set of symbols can be interpreted so many different ways by so many people. Mark appears to be saying that I’m communicating using a common language and that this is somewhat rare. Lots of people can read and would like to, but no one is speaking with them the way they want to be spoken to.

A lot of literary-minded types would prefer to lecture. They come from an environment where they were lectured, and they’re modelling that behavior, which is fine if their audience likes that, but I don’t think that most people want to be lectured. I think most of us would rather have a conversation.


TV: Is that what alt-lit’s all about, really? Is that what literature is going to look like — or even what it should look like — for the Internet generation? Do you think this could be the new poetic tradition? Like maybe, just maybe, you’re contributing to the formation of a very important canon?

HJ: Well, it already is a tradition. I’ve been influenced by writers I thought were fun, that spoke to me, and now I’m working from that tradition in my own way. That’s how it works. Important? I don’t know. It’s important to the people who enjoy [it]. But everyone has their own idea of what alt-lit is and what it means. To me, it’s just a thing that’s happening in a specific place at a specific time. There are consistent patterns in the work of writers influenced by each other, but what I think it’s really about is the digital medium. It’s more about positing your writing online and associating it with alt-lit than it is about the content having alt-lit properties. Which to me seems fine. I like the idea that writing could be common and popular. I like common and popular things.




TV: We’re wondering if you’re on the alt-lit team? Is it something you self-select into? Did you ever wake up one morning from a great melatonin-induced sleep and think, “Hey, I’m just gonna go 100 per cent alt-lit,” or something?

HJ: I probably am. It’s nice to be a part of something, to some extent.

TV: Could there be alt-lit without the Internet? Where do you think all of these people, like you, Noah Cicero, and Ben Brooks, would have ended up without the Internet?

HJ: Ben and Noah don’t seem to be as attached to the Internet as I am. My work is inseparable from it. It’s about using a computer and being online, not entirely, but in part and definitely inextricably. That just kind of happened, and maybe it will be less about that in the future. But apparently my relationship with my computer and the avatars on its screen is an important one to me and one I’ve been consistently fascinated with exploring. I think Ben and Noah are more traditional writers in the sense that I’m guessing they were sitting down with blank Word documents and filling them up first, then came to the Internet to share what they’d done. I’m different in the sense that I became a writer on accident. This was just something I started doing while trying to promote my music and ended up having a lot more success getting people to pay attention to me this way, so I just kept doing it. But it’s grown into a lot more than that. I’ve turned on and developed a different part of my mind, and it’s a lot of fun. It’ll be cool to see where it ends up going. I think it’s going to be around for a while. People aren’t going to stop posting their writing online anytime soon. Yes, it’s a bull market for alt-lit; I say buy, buy, buy. Notes and likes will be up 40 per cent by year’s end. That’s my prediction, and you can take it to the bank.



TV: Marry, fuck, kill — Mira Gonzalez, Melissa Broder, Marie Calloway?

HJ: I would marry Ms. Broder but she is already married. I wouldn’t feel comfortable fucking or killing anyone except myself.

TV: In n+1, your “Status Update” piece was published under fiction, but a lot of your pieces, including that one, feel autobiographical. How would you classify them? Is it real? Is it not real? Does it even matter?

HJ: It doesn’t matter. The product is the point, not who I am or how the reader may perceive me. It’s about the implication of a person doing/saying/thinking these things on the planet Earth and what meaning you make of it with relation to your own worldview.

I recently posted a status “revealing” that my account was actually run by four interns from an MFA program, and while most people seemed to “get” it, some were confused. Someone else posted a screencap on Twitter and expressed outrage that this was on her timeline. I think it’s funny, and if you put too much stock in a writer rather than their writing, you deserve to be upset when that human being doesn’t live up to your expectations.

TV: Would you tell us your real name if we asked for it? We’re asking for it.

HJ: No.

TV: There have been a lot of scathing words directed towards the alt-lit scene, like in Josh Baine’s “Alt lit is for boring, infantile narcissists” on Vice, for example, where he calls it “nothing more than a literature of absolute nothingness,” and then continues:

“All of this — the narcissism, the solipsism, the glorification of online communication, the brattiness, the backslapping, the fucking image macros — could be overlooked if the writing was any good… if things happened in the stories, […] if it wasn’t so content with thinking about drugs and itself and itself on drugs. If it wasn’t fucking alt lit, basically.”

Do you have anything to say in defence of alt-lit? Why’s it worth its salt? Why are people so mad about it?

HJ: People are mad about it because they were mad already. Alt-lit is just a thing you can do on your computer. It’s a creative outlet with infinite possibility because it allows people to communicate with each other in a way that will allow the message to be received in a certain way. What way? I don’t know. It seems like something. There are problems with everything. It’s easy to rip on stuff. It seems especially easy to rip on young people posting poetry online.

Really, it’s what you make of it. If you’re using this thing as a way to escape, to avoid growth and hide in a comfortable nook of the web, then it’s probably not healthy. If you’re using it as a way to get in touch with parts of yourself you can’t express in other arenas of your life, then, hey, you might be doing it right. Who’s to say? Let your conscience be your guide. I like the way I’m doing it.

TV: What do you listen to when you’re writing? Jon Hopkins and Born Gold have been great backdrops for me as I’ve been reading your work. Are either of those the right vibes?

HJ: I like Jon Hopkins a lot. Sometimes I listen to my own music, which seems appropriately bratty and narcissistic, if you are taking the hater’s view. Or it could be a different way, if you can imagine that. Uh. I’ve been listening to Tim Hecker[’s] Virgins a lot. This Mssingno mix Brad Troemel posted is tight. This band Narrator played at a reading I did, and they were really good.

TV: Will alt-lit always be hiding in the shadows somewhere behind Tao Lin? When someone hears “alt-lit” and immediately thinks “Tao Lin,” does that hurt the genre?

HJ: I can’t see why it would hurt. Tao is an innovator. A bunch of people liked what he did and wanted to go in the direction he was leading. That seems fine with me if everyone else is okay with it. Sometimes people have good ideas; it’s all right to admit that you were inspired by them. As to what’s going to happen with alt-lit, who knows? It’s happening right now.

TV: Does Lin’s legacy hold it back? Can we grow past it? Will some sort of Richard Yates/Shoplifting from American Apparel cross remain burning on our horizon forever?

HJ: I think you’re underestimating my creative potential.

TV: Tell me something I haven’t asked about.

HJ: Burger King was originally founded under the name “Insta-Burger King” in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can find more of Heiko Julien’s work here.