The Internet can be a harsh mistress should you get on its bad side. Just ask the photographer Christopher Boffoli, who just had his entire life’s work uploaded to file-sharing site, the Pirate Bay, in retaliation for suing the photo site Imgur for copyright infringement.
Boffoli created a series of fine-art photograph entitled Big Appetites, in which tiny, meticulously detailed figures pose in real food environments. The series references both a cultural fascination with tiny things, as well as an American enthusiasm for excess, and the Internet fell in love with them. Love in the context of the Internet means an abundance of sharing on social media, usually without any attribution to the photographer.
Boffoli’s makes his money by licensing and selling his photos. He became quite upset to see so much of his work being copied without his permission, which he viewed as potentially hurting his income stream, so he decided to take action. According to Torrent Freak, Boffoli has filed lawsuits against Twitter, Google and others, which were settled out for court under undisclosed terms. Most recently, Boffoli sued Imgur for posting 73 instances of his work.
Safe Harbor and the DMCA
Companies like Google and Twitter are protected under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), so are difficult to sue. The DMCA protects only those sites that are merely hosts, and not actively involved in generating or promoting the content. To qualify, they must register as a Safe Harbor company with the Copyright Office and provide a DMCA specified mechanism for users to request removal of infringing material.
Copyright is strict liability law. If anyone posts copyrighted material without authorization, they are liable regardless of the reason for infringing. Without the safe harbor provision; website owners would be liable anytime a user uploads infringing material. The practical result would be sites inundated with lawsuits, effectively making it impossible to operate. The DMCA alleviates that burden by giving qualifying websites immunity from any copyright lawsuits.
The DMCA procedure for takedown requires that any infringing material be removed upon request. Should the original uploader disagree with the takedown request, they can make a counter-claim at which point the site can reinstate the material until the outcome of a lawsuit on the matter.
Imgur Never Removed Boffoli’s Work
In the case with Imgur, Boffoli requested removal of 73 infringing works, received acknowledgement but the work was never removed. Because Imgur didn’t following DMCA procedures, Imgur may have lost its Safe Harbor status. Without immunity, Boffoli could sue. As well, Boffoli had registered his work with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringements. He can, therefore, receive statutory damages, which range from between $750 and $30,000 per infringement, as well as have his legal fees paid for by Imgur should he prevail. More importantly, since Imgur was aware of the infringements and did not remove them, the infringement could be considered willful, which increases the statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringement. So, even on the low- end, Imgur could be liable for over $2 million.
While that all may sound good for Boffoli, he didn’t consider the backlash that could result from his series of lawsuits. There is a strong movement for a more open Internet, not hampered by Copyright; where sharing is the norm, as long as nobody profits from the copied works. The entire social media space is built on sharing with minimal harm to any authors, and may very well increase sales due to the free marketing and exposure. Some people in that group, who took Boffoli’s actions as a form of censorship, saw the Imgur lawsuit as the last straw, despite his legal right to decide how to present his photos.
One user retaliated by uploading Boffoli’s life’s work, 20,754 photos, to the Pirate Bay, and others followed suit by downloading and sharing the photos. Based on comments from users, it seems that the upload was in direct retaliation for his lawsuit against Imgur. One commenter said, “Sued for 73 images, got 20,754 uploaded to TPB, LOL. About the Big Appetites series, if I ever get my hands on a copy, I’ll scan it at 600 dpi and upload it here, have fun trying to censor the internet, Boffoli ;D.” Another chided, “Gosh, it looks like copyright trolling is a business model that may generate the occasional, unintended consequence.”
The moral of this story is that in an anonymous environment like the Internet, taking actions, even ones that are legal, may have unintended consequences. Sometimes it pays to consider alternatives. Maybe Boffoli had other options. It doesn’t take too many people to turn the situation against someone. While its true that Imgur users had posted 73 photos, what is the real harm? Did Boffoli’s see a decrease in sales, or did seeing his photos on Imgur and other social media cause people to buy his photos and books? Still, it is Boffoli’s right to decide whether he wants his photos shown on Imgur. Should he have to accept the infringement just because a few angry Internet users wanted to steal his work?
What do you think about Boffoli’s actions? Please let us know in the comments section below.