Lately, people have been getting sued for some absolutely ridiculous reasons. The things we do every day—from putting pictures on Facebook to uploading home videos on YouTube—have led to some major lawsuits.
Copyright law has gotten awfully complicated since the Internet came around. Companies are getting more paranoid than ever about holding onto their intellectual property. Some would argue that their paranoia is justified, given the endless amount of pirated content that can be found online. Nevertheless, the corporations sometimes go a bit crazy with it.
Copyright law in Britain is ‘crazy’
Britain needs to radically update its copyright laws, which criminalise millions of consumers who use iPods, according to a leading watchdog.
Under existing legislation it is illegal for a consumer to upload a CD that they own onto their computer and then download it onto an MP3 player such as an iPod. This practice – undertaken by thousands on a daily basis – is known as format shifting.
They are breaking the law if they “shift” the content onto another device, even if they are the only one to listen to the music. Consumer Focus, the Government-funded watchdog, said that many did not understand the law and that it needed to be updated, even if no one had actually been prosecuted under the legislation.
In 2014, a UK woman named Laura Elizabeth Skywalker Matthews was denied when she tried to renew her passport—because her name violated a copyright.In fairness to the passport office, “Skywalker” wasn’t her birth name. She added the extra middle name in 2008 for what she called “a bit of a laugh.” Her name change was approved, though, and she’d already been sent a new driving license, bank card, and everything else imaginable showing her new name.The passport office alone refused to give her a new passport, telling her that they “will not recognise a change to a name which is subject to copyright or trademark.” And they continued to refuse until she had a lawyer sue the office and force them to give her one.It’s a strange story, but it’s hardly the only time someone’s been sued for their name. Dr. Dre once tried to sue a gynecologist named Dr. Drai on the basis that his name might “confuse” people into thinking it was him. The case even went to court, where a judge had to explain to Dr. Dre that it was highly unlikely that anyone would make the mistake of thinking that a former NWA member had given up the rap life and gotten into gynecology.
In 2016, Carol Highsmith got a cease-and-desist letter from Getty Images threatening to take her to court if she didn’t take down a photograph (shown above) she’d put up on her website. This was strange—because she’d taken the photograph herself, and she’d put it in the public domain.A few years before, Highsmith had donated 100,000 of her photographs to the Library of Congress so that they could be used royalty-free by anyone who wanted. The Library of Congress saw it as “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library”—and Getty Images, it seems, saw it as one of the greatest acts of a total sucker in the history of getting rich off of somebody else’s work.They copyrighted 18,755 of Highsmith’s public domain photographs and started sending people cease-and-desist letters for using them—including Highsmith herself. Highsmith, full of righteous fury, took them to court for $1 billion. But the truly messed up part of this story is that it doesn’t have a happy ending.The court ruled in Getty’s favor, saying: “Public domain works are regularly commercialized, and the original authors hold no power to stop this.” In other words, even though Highsmith’s donation had given everyone the legal right to use her photographs for free, it didn’t stop Getty from threatening people into paying them money for them, anyway. (They still conceded that the letter sent to Highsmith was a mistake, but they got off with a slap on the wrist at the most.) Anyone who wants to can go around demanding that people pay them for things that are in the public domain all that they want. Nobody actually has to pay them—but they’re under no obligation to tell anyone that fact.
A number of farmers have been fighting John Deere for the right to repair their tractors. Their newer tractors come with built-in computers that monitor the engine, and they won’t let owners fix the engines themselves. The computers have a digital lock that requires you to put in a key before making any kind of repairs—even if the only problem is a loose belt. If a farmer’s tractor breaks down, he has to either visit a licensed John Deere realtor or wait for an employee to come out and put in the key, which costs a base fee of $230 plus an extra $130 for every hour the John Deere employee spends getting out there.They can just crack the code with some programs online, but John Deere’s ready to sue anyone who tries. They consider using a code cracker intellectual property theft, and they’re willing to threaten $500,000 in fines and five years in prison to anyone who dares to fix a tractor without paying them a few hundred dollars.
Georgia’s official state laws are copyrighted. If you want to read them, you can buy a printed copy for $1,207.02 or a digital version of $1,259.41. Otherwise, you’re pretty much out of luck.Not that people haven’t tried to change that. An information activist named Carl Malamud, thinking everyone had the right to read the laws of their home state, bought himself a copy, scanned them, and put them up online. The state, though, clearly didn’t agree. They sued him for copyright infringement in 2015.In fairness to the state of Georgia, the version Malamud had put up had annotations made by a private company called LexisNexis. They do have an unannotated version of their state laws available for free on their website. The version you can access for free, though, is an unofficial version of their laws. The only official version is the one with the annotations—and if there was a contradiction between the two copies, Malamud believes that the one nobody’s allowed to see would win in court.Georgia didn’t stop at suing him. They publicly called this act of making the law accessible to everyone “terrorism.” And they won. The court ruled that putting the annotated laws “has negatively impacted LexisNexis’s ability to make money off the sale of the annotated code.” So that’s why you can’t read Georgia’s state laws for free. Because it negatively impacts a private company’s ability to make money.
Louis Rossman makes his living showing people how to fix electronics on YouTube. But when he put up a video that showed people how to fix their MacBooks, he very nearly lost everything.In 2016, Apple sent a letter to Rossman full of veiled threats, accusing him of violating their copyrights by letting people see the schematics for their computers. The details of the letter have never been shown to the public, but Rossman strongly implied that Apple had threatened to raid the repair shop he owned, put him out of business, and shut down his YouTube channel. “We have a right to repair your garbage,” Rossman ranted in an angry post on his blog. “We have the right to fix what you f—ed up, without charging a customer $650 because we had to get the part from you.”Apple ended up dropping the charges, likely because of all the publicity Rossman had managed to build up. But Rossman just got lucky—Apple has gone through with suing plenty of less popular aftermarket iPhone businesses on the exact same charges.
If you’re one of those people who can’t touch a meal until you’ve put a picture of it on Instagram, you might not want to visit Germany. If you do it there, the chef has the legal right to sue you—and he’ll win.As of 2013, German law has explicitly stated: “For carefully-arranged food in a famous restaurant, the cook is regarded as the creator of a work. Before it can be made public on Facebook & Co., permission must first be asked of the master chef.”
In 2015, a member of a Star Wars fan group on Facebook bought a Rey action figure at Walmart, took a picture of it, and put it up on the site. And, to his surprise, he nearly got the whole Facebook group sued. The action figure he’d bought, it turned out, wasn’t supposed to go on sale until the next day. They put through a complaint accusing them of leaking an unreleased product, thereby saving the world from the horrors of finding out what a children’s toy looks like slightly before the scheduled release date.Fans weren’t thrilled. One pointed out, “It’s not unreleased if you can walk into Walmart and buy the damn toy!” while the Electronic Frontier Foundation had their lawyers weigh in to point out that Disney absolutely did not have the legal right to ask them to take the picture down.