More Transparent Content Removal

Every day we receive a significant number of requests to have content removed from sites hosted on WordPress.com. Many of these involve alleged copyright violations making use of the DMCA takedown process, or the publication of sensitive private information. We review every single one by hand to ensure that the processes are not being abused for the purposes of censorship, and are constantly looking to improve how they are handled.

Content Removal Image

Before now, whenever content was removed from sites in these situations, there was no visual indication to explain why things may not be displaying correctly, with visitors confronted with a 404 page not found error instead. This was far from an ideal situation, and as part of our commitment to increased transparency, we are proud to be able to say that this is no longer the case.

From today, when content is removed from a WordPress.com site as the result of a DMCA takedown, or a private information complaint, a notice will be placed on the site in question to explain exactly what content has been removed, when, and why. In the case of images, a placeholder will be displayed. We hope this will help ensure that on those occasions where we are required to intervene, that the reasons for doing so are as clear as possible.

Read more about our DMCA policy here.

Read more about our private information policy here.

In addition to implementing this new process, we have also updated our documentation with new pages on how we approach the DMCA in general. You can find this at the following links:

https://en.support.wordpress.com/our-dmca-process/

https://en.support.wordpress.com/copyright-and-the-dmca/

Standing Up for Bitcoin

We strongly believe in the power of open source software, and have seen first hand how it can empower communities to build better software for an endless variety of applications, from the ground up.

Bitcoin, and other digital currencies, are great examples of how open, community driven development can spark innovations that would be very difficult to replicate under a top down, proprietary development model.

BC_Logo_That’s one of the main reasons why we accepted bitcoin as payment for Automattic upgrades. Though we paused Bitcoin support earlier this year, due to resource constraints, we still strongly support its mission. It’s also why we’ve recently engaged in the policy realm to champion policies that will foster, not impede future innovations in open, digital currencies like Bitcoin.

We’re proud to have filed comments in response to New York State’s proposed Bitlicense, which is a state-level attempt to regulate the decentralized, open source technology with highly prescriptive cybersecurity and licensing requirements. We’d also emphasize that many of these comments also apply to similar efforts to regulate digital currencies currently underway in other states, such as California’s AB 1326.

Bitcoin Should be (Un)regulated Like Open Source Software—Not Burdened By Misguided Licenses

We view the New York regulator’s efforts as deeply misguided. They needlessly stifle development of very promising open technologies, and potentially threaten free speech, privacy, and security.

Key reasons we oppose the proposed rules include:

  • Regulation of any kind at this stage of Bitcoin’s development is a mistake. Adding burdensome regulatory requirements that do more harm than good will surely succeed only in stifiling new innovations in Bitcoin and blockchain technologies.
  • Regulating digital currencies will have unintended consequences on free speech, especially anonymous speech online. Many of our users, especially those residing in countries lacking freedom of expression, choose to publish their sites anonymously. New York’s BitLicense proposal would require these publishers to risk revealing their identities for even small payments.
  • States should not be in the business of regulating digital currencies. New York’s proposed law is bad enough, but imagine a world in which every state had its own version of the bitlicense – we’d have an unmanageable thicket of dozens of state laws. This situation would be ill-suited to a technology without borders. If digital currencies are to be regulated, it should be at the federal, not state, level.
  • The cybersecurity provisions create more problems than they solve. These provisions would entrust the New York agency with so much data that the agency would become a top cybsersecurity target, and we are not sure the agency has the expertise to protect that data.

We are scarcely at the dawn of understanding the possibilities of open technologies like Bitcoin, and the blockchain. It is hasty to regulate digital currencies in the manner the BitLicense proposes, especially when we are not fully aware of what’s at stake. We believe that current laws, applied well, likely will address the consumer harms that New York is concerned about. Once the technologies have matured, it may be sensible to adopt a uniform, reasonable set of rules at the federal level.

Read our full letter to New York’s Department of Financial Services:

When Bots go Bad: Automated DMCA Takedown Problems

In the past, we’ve not been shy about highlighting a number of the issues that exist with the DMCA, and recently fought back against its abuse in court. However, it remains true that tackling repeated instances of copyright infringement online can be repetitive work, and it’s no surprise that some people opt to outsource this task to third parties who have an army of specially programmed bots at their command.

These kind of automated systems scour the web, firing off takedown notifications where unauthorized uses of material are found – so humans don’t have to. Sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t always work out as smoothly in practice. Much akin to some nightmare scenario from the Terminator, sometimes the bots turn on their creators.

Be Afraid

Be afraid

We saw this happen fairly recently on WordPress.com, in an it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious kind of scenario. Attributor.com sent in a formally valid takedown notification on behalf of an academic, demanding that we disable access to a PDF that infringed upon his copyright. Following the statutory requirements, we did so, and notified the user, with instructions on how to submit a counter notification if they wished to challenge the removal.

Within a few days we heard back from the (understandably unhappy) site owner, who explained that they were in fact the copyright holder. The takedown notification was issued by an agency working on his behalf, and their bot had mistakenly targeted the original author’s site.

Ouch.

The confusion was eventually sorted out after the agency retracted the original takedown notice, and we restored access – but not before it was unavailable for almost five full days.

The DMCA notification and takedown process is a powerful weapon in the battle against copyright infringement, but it can also cause severe harm to freedom of speech when used inappropriately. As a result, it is something that should be deployed carefully, and with respect. All too often, overly broad takedown notifications are sent to online service providers in a scatter gun approach, with the financial interests of third party agents (who are routinely paid by instance of successful takedown) placed above the accuracy of the reports.

There is no question that there are a lot of issues involved in choosing to use bots to enforce copyright, but having them turn against you has got to be one of the worst.

Cheers to the FCC for Supporting Title II to Protect the Open Internet

WordPress.com aims to democratize publishing – to build the tools that give writers, bloggers, and creators of all sizes a way to get their voices to the world. Today we see that our voices were heard, and that they had a big impact on the future of the internet.

This morning, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced his support for strong network neutrality rules, by proposing to reclassify internet service under Title II of the telecommunications act. We applaud Chairman Wheeler for today’s announcement. It’s a historic step, and one that would not have been possible without the support of the millions of internet users – from individual WordPress.com bloggers to the President of the United States – who voiced their support for the open internet for the past several months. At Automattic, we’re proud to have participated in this historic effort, and pledge to continue supporting this important cause until rules that truly protect the free, open internet that we know and love are firmly in place.

Open Sourcing Our DMCA Process

At Automattic, we are firm believers in the power of open source: the release of code (or other works) into the public domain to be used, modified, and shared freely.

One of the challenges faced by online service providers is how to implement an effective policy for dealing with the DMCA takedown process – especially in cases where the system is being abused. We strive to protect users’ freedom of speech, and would love to see others do the same. However, the possible scenarios and requirements can be confusing; the language intimidating… especially for websites run by individuals or small organisations.

As a result, we are pleased to announce that today we are open sourcing our DMCA process docs on GitHub – under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Included in the release is our already publicly available pages for details on how to submit a DMCA takedown and counter notice:

http://automattic.com/dmca/

http://automattic.com/dmca-counter-notice/

In addition, there is also a comprehensive set of detailed ‘predefined replies’ that we use when corresponding with both users and complainants in specific situations.

Some examples are:

  • Informing a user that a DMCA notice against their site has been received, the material disabled, and instructions for what to do next if they wish to challenge the removal.
  • Notification to a claimant that we are rejecting their claim on fair use grounds.
  • A response to an incomplete DMCA takedown, outlining which elements render the notice invalid, and instructions on how to make the necessary corrections.

We hope that this will help demystify some of the issues surrounding the DMCA process, and help others to implement their own.

The updated repo is available here, with the relevant docs filed under ‘DMCA’:

https://github.com/Automattic/legalmattic

We Proudly Have Your Back: EFF Awards WordPress.com 5 Stars For Protecting User Speech

The Electronic Frontier Foundation yesterday released a new version of their Who Has Your Back? report, focused on protecting user speech from “copyright & trademark bullies.”

yeeaaahhhWe’re proud that WordPress.com was awarded all five possible stars in the report — one of only two services to earn that honor.

“When a private citizen or corporation wants to silence speech on a major online platform, the quickest method is often a copyright or trademark complaint,” the EFF correctly noted. This isn’t what the law intended, but it’s a practice that we see all too frequently.

We strongly support the rights of all creators to reasonably protect their works — WordPress.com users create millions of original (and copyrighted!) posts every day, after all — but we are irked when IP holders stretch their legal rights to the point of abuse. The law is meant to also preserve free expression and fair use. So we strive to defend those liberties and build tough safeguards against censorship. Otherwise WordPress.com, and the Internet at large, cannot remain a free, open, and vibrant platform for all.

A major theme of the EFF report is transparency — how well do internet companies explain their policies to the world and especially to their users? This is crucial because copyright, trademark law, and the enforcement and takedown processes remain an obscure and misunderstood facet of the Internet. We’re continually working to improve on this front and are optimistic about similar efforts underway at many companies across the industry.

The EFF warmed our fair-use-loving little hearts by specifically citing Automattic’s lawsuits in response to abusive takedown requests, policy to have humans carefully review all trademark complaints, and recently expanded transparency report. They also gave shout-outs to great work done by our peers, such as Etsy’s fantastic explanatory writing and Twitter’s two solid years of standard-setting transparency reports, from which we’ve certainly drawn inspiration.

Have a look at the full report. It’s an interesting read, top to bottom. There’s even a PDF version for all you lawyers stuck in the last century.

The animated GIF used above I believe to be fair use of a scene from the Fox Broadcasting Network series Bob’s Burgers. If Fox disagrees, well, they know how to reach us

Hall of Shame: Portakabin Demand the Impossible

Trademarks are important. They allow businesses to build up value in their brands, and give us the ability to distinguish between competitors in crowded marketplaces. In theory, they are necessary to make sure that people are getting the products or services at the standard which they expect. Naturally, this system requires a means of legal enforcement for situations where a mark is used in a manner that causes confusion for consumers.

However, just as ‘apple’ is still a kind of fruit, and ‘Amazon’ is still the name of a rainforest, a trademark registration does not give the holder the power to control every use of that mark. Protection under trademark law only applies in specific circumstances – something that is vital in order to protect freedom of speech.

Sadly, there are many instances where companies and law firms scour the web to aggressively target any mentions of their trademarks that exist, whatever form they may take. This is something we have seen happen previously on WordPress.com with Janet Jackson.

Recently, we received another such claim of trademark infringement, this time regarding the WordPress.com site portacabincabins.wordpress.com.

In the claim, Portakabin Limited asserted that they had already been in contact with the owner of the site, which appeared to have resulted in its subsequent deletion.

This is what it currently looks like:

Portakabin Trademark Claim

This is a standard page that is displayed when a user deletes their site, and it prevents any other users from being able to use that URL in the future. However, having had the site successfully removed, Portakabin still weren’t happy. In their notice to us, they demanded that we disable access to the holding page URL completely. To illustrate their point, they attached a scanned copy of a print-out of the above screenshot. (Why is it that lawyers insist on doing that by the way?)

We don’t believe that trademark holders automatically gain a right to every subdomain related to their brand on the Internet. Despite there being no actual content on the page, Portakabin were determined to prevent any reference to their trademark being made, including in the actual URL itself.

In this case, there is clearly no infringement from a page that indicates a site is not accessible. Even if the deletion notice was to be removed, or replaced with a 404 Not Found response, there would be no way to prevent users from getting to that page by typing the URL into the address bar.

Sorry Portakabin. For demanding the impossible, you’ve made it into our Hall of Shame.

Transparency Report Update

We’re pleased to release our second, biannual transparency report and even more excited to announce a few new additions to the report.

In addition to updates to the data we provided on user information requests and government takedown demands in our inaugural report, our latest report includes:

  • Data about the intellectual property related complaints we received and how we responded.
  • Summary pages for each type of request we received, with notes on trends we’re seeing in the numbers.
  • A Resources page so you have easy access to our relevant policies, WordPress.com support documents, and third party information.
  • A Hall of Shame where we showcase some of the threats to freedom of speech and expression that we see and resist every day.

Our new intellectual property report includes data on both copyright and trademark complaints against our users. Copyright complaints are the most common. We carefully review the copyright takedown notices sent our way, and we’re proud to say that in the first half of 2014, we rejected 10% of copyright notices as abusive. “Abusive” notices are formally complete (including all of the information required by the DMCA), but are directed at fair use of content, material that isn’t copyrightable, or content the complaining party misrepresents ownership of a copyright. Some of these are highlighted in our Hall of Shame. In addition, we rejected 26% of the notice we received because they were incomplete.

We receive and respond to fewer claims of trademark infringement on WordPress.com. In this six month reporting period, we received 122 reports and removed content in response to only 15%.

Looking at trends in our data for government information requests and takedown demands: we saw increased volume across the board. We saw a 194% increase in government takedown demands and a 108% increase in government information requests. For the 2014 reporting period, we complied with 5% of the total takedown demands we received, and 16% of the information requests.

Russia again submitted the most takedown demands (35) of any country. Meanwhile, the United States continues to hold the lead in the number of information requests (17), most of which came in the form of a subpoena.

Information Requests

Information Requests Chart

Takedown Demands

Takedown_Requests_Chart

We received no National Security Requests during the first half of 2014, and remain unsatisfied with the level of detail that we’re allowed to report for our previous reporting period.

For a closer look at the data, check out each report in detail by navigating the menu at the top of the page.

Sorry Ms. Jackson…

Janet Jackson is a fine recording artist, but seems to have employed some overly aggressive lawyers, bent on removing or controlling all references to her name on WordPress.com. Here are a couple of examples of the improper takedown demands we’ve received:

  • Trademark infringement: The mention of Janet Jackson in a post about dinner conversation topic “What would your WWE Smackdown name be?”

“Picture Sacha Baron Cohen in, what else? his movie The Dictator. Elaborate General’s outfit, hat, etc. He walks in flanked by half a dozen sexy female soldiers inspired by the Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation video.”

(Here’s what our user thinks.)

  • Copyright infringement: An image of Ms. Jackson used in a Tim Howard meme:

janet-jackson-tim-howard

We rejected both of these complaints on the grounds of obvious fair use. Though we rejected their demands, we wanted to make sure they got at least a little promotion for their client, so we tried to use as many Janet Jackson song titles as possible (hopefully this doesn’t draw another takedown demand from them…) in our response:

“It seems like you believe the use of the trademark “Janet Jackson” is reserved all for you, but we were hoping you’d be open to some feedback because your attempt to control every use of the mark is pretty nasty. If you read up on nominative use, you’ll discover that it doesn’t really matter that “Janet Jackson” is used on this site. If you believe there are any other alleged infringements, would you mind submitting a notice again via our trademark form?

http://automattic.com/trademark-policy/

So excited to work with you going forward.”

 

Kern’s Kitchen’s Mean-Spirited Censorship Pie

Kern’s Kitchen, the company exclusively behind “the one and only Derby-Pie® chocolate nut pie,” asserted its trademark against 32 bloggers on WordPress.com who had the nerve to title their recipes “Derby Pie.” Between the link to trademark information displayed prominently on their site and the many lawsuits they’ve filed, it’s clear that they take this pie business seriously. They’ve rightfully earned their place in the Hall of Shame as The Most Litigious Dessert in America.

We pushed back as much as possible to keep the posts up, and reached out to each of our bloggers about the issue and suggested alternate recipe names, such as “Kentucky Derby Chocolate Pie” or “Mean-Spirited Censorship Pie.” Our friends at EFF joined in on the fun too and made this entertaining video about the case.