Copyright Trolls - A sucker is born every minute. P.T. Barnum
The Dash - The Most Financially Damaging Piece Poem Ever Written
How could an ordinary poem – just 242 words - bankrupt a business, end a man’s career, close a charity’s doors, cause religious leaders to tremble and entrepreneurs to change their identity, shame a man to quit his job, empty church coffers, end programs and services for the needy, penalize a school district over a lesson plan, and emotionally and financially ruin a grieving family and increase insurance premiums for institutions, hospitals, charities and funeral homes? That’s what I still want to know, nearly five years after getting my first email from a copyright troll.
I had no idea that by opening an email in 2011 that I would still be entrenched in a seedy copyright trolling story or that I would be instrumental in helping hundreds of targets avoid paying off a copyright troll. My story makes little sense to a reasonable person but this is it in a nutshell. I got an email promoting a poem. I shared the poem on a blog. The author accused me of copyright infringement. She claimed I damaged her to the reputation and income in the amount of $3500. She demanded I pay her or she would be forced to sue me in Federal court for the maximum penalty of $150,000 and the Feds could give me jail time. She said she had won before and she would win the case against me. I thought it was a scam so I ignored the email. I got a second email from a person claiming to be a copyright representative. This email was more threatening. I wrote back and told him I wouldn’t pay. I got another letter from him and another from an attorney and decided then to post my story on line angering the author. We argued by email for a few days and I made all of that conversation public. I joined a forum called Extortion Letter Info and read through thousands of posts from people who are accused of copyright infringement and threatened with financial ruin. This is the seedy world of copyright trolls.
The Dash - The Most Financially Damaging Piece of Literature Ever Written
Before the Nigerian banking scam, before Bernie Madoff and before Lehman Brothers, the business of copyright trolling was growing as fast as internet porn. The anti-copyright troll movement guestimates that thousands upon thousands of letters are emailed daily to possible victims, demanding sums from $350 to $150,000 for the sharing of photos, videos and yes, poetry. The ruse my troll used to snare me was an email entrapment campaign and had been effective for her for a very long time. The email she sent me was friendly and included the poem and a link to her website and new book. In step with promoting women to women business, I shared both the poem and links in a blog post. Sharing content was a common practice among women entrepreneurs and appreciated. That act of sharing meant that I had fallen for a growing internet scheme, copyright trolling. These letters are sent by attorneys, content creators and copyright holders. Letters are even sent by trolls who claim to own copyrights they don’t own and by content creators who sold their content to a company that no longer represents their copyrighted content. And there are trolls who pretend to be another troll. In every case the troll threatens to provoke a frightened reaction from a target via email and continues to send emails and pile on more threats until the troll collects or moves on in search of an easier target. My troll has never sued anyone for sharing content and tires and goes away after eight to a dozen emails. Copyright infringement claims expire within a three years of discovery. There is also a rule that applies to emailed content. My troll delivered the email to me from her email address in an email that included The Dash poem. That email is not protected under copyright.
“To have a copy is not to have the copyright. All the E-mail you write is copyrighted. However, E-mail is not, unless previously agreed, secret. So you can certainly report on what E-mail you are sent, and reveal what it says. You can even quote parts of it to demonstrate. Frankly, somebody who sues over an ordinary message would almost surely get no damages, because the message has no commercial value, but if you want to stay strictly in the law, you should ask first. On the other hand, don't go nuts if somebody posts E-mail you sent them. If it was an ordinary non-secret personal letter of minimal commercial value with no copyright notice (like 99.9% of all E-mail), you probably won't get any damages if you sue them.
Excerpt from 10 Big Myths about copyright explained by Brad Templeton. Even Templeton agrees that the copyright law has holes in it. “…copyright isn’t an iron-clad lock on what can be published.” Trolls have stuffed themselves into those holes and authorities are clueless as to the harm they cause.
My troll bills herself as an inspirational author and markets her poetry to the religious, the biggest users of her poetry. Jews share The Dash. Christians share The Dash. The spiritual share The Dash. The poem is shared in newsletters, blogs, and in sermons. Whether she wrote the poem or not, it made the rounds for a number of years without attribution primarily because of the way news travels through a congregation and religious community and via crowded events and gatherings. The horse named “author unknown” was a long way from the barn by the time she took ownership of the poem having already been shared by thousands. She saw opportunity from all that sharing but none came. Which leaves me to reason she did not deliberately wait until 1996 to copyright it but likely discovered how easy it was to collect infringement settlements vs. selling books of poetry. By then there was plenty of easy targets. By the year 2000 hundreds of victims quietly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements silenced by confidentiality agreements. Those numbers continued to rise for two decades.
The Dash - The Most Financially Damaging Piece of Literature Ever Written
It is impossible to know what the rules are. When fans become targets they often assume that the troll will reason with them once they remove the content. Instead they are showered with as many as a dozen threatening emails demanding payment. My troll still markets her poetry to women and women business owners and anyone seeking inspiring content to share with others. They enthusiastically share the poem’s message even tattooing the stanzas on their skin. Some burn the words into wood and some put the words to music. Some pay licensing fees and some don’t. Some getting harassed and others don’t. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who she targets. One person who uses the poem in a funeral program is victimized and another family having infringed in the same manner does not. A celebrity reads the dash on camera and is left alone but school districts are threatened with copyright lawsuit when students at schools across the country do the very same thing.
I was successfully lured by my trolls marketing campaign. I am the perfect profile. I’m a small business owner and I am the founder and director of a cat rescue. I unwittingly shared content thinking I was doing a good thing. I doubt there is a lawyer, politician or judge who has not inadvertently shared content and as a result of that sharing their life may have gained a benefit and maybe even financial profit. Senator Bob Dole shared The Dash on television without permission. If sharing The Dash is against the copyright law, why isn’t the Senator in jail and paying my troll hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages? The answer is sharing is a positive act that often has positive consequences for all parties even a copyright troll. My troll uses Dole’s version to sell books and snare possible targets. Who gained more from the sharing of The Dash? Bob Dole or my troll?
My blog represents something very different to a troll. A troll considers a blog, any blog, as income producing just by existing. However trivial my blog is to my career pursuits, it is proof to a troll that their content can be attributed to my overall success. In other words, any income I earn as a result of having a business website and any pleasure I might receive from a personal blog can be valued arbitrarily by a troll. A troll claims damages even if a trail from that content to my success or my computer can’t be mapped. Profits and damages are whatever a troll says they are.
More targets need to tell their stories and we need the ear of the national media. Lawyers dominate the articles and do more to foster fear by adding more self-serving quotes, like the recent article in the Miami Herald about another copyright trolling operation. “These claims have so much emotion attached to them. People feel like, ‘I didn’t intend to do this,’” said Joel Rothman, a South Florida intellectual property lawyer. “And people don’t understand the law doesn’t require any intent, so they jump to the conclusion that they’re being wrongfully accused.”
The intent of the copyright law is to protect content creators not abuse a citizenry who are taught from birth to share and share alike. Most people who share content are innocent infringers and are using content under the Fair Use doctrine. They are not plagiarizing, selling, stealing, or profiting in real dollars by sharing a poem or photo. They aren’t fake news sites intent on driving traffic or publicizing their products and services. Most people are truly inspired by other people’s content and they share for no other reason than they like what they watch, hear and read.
Copyright trolls are here to stay. My troll may not be collecting as much money as she used too but she knows what P.T. Barnum knew. “A sucker is born every minute.” She now demands $15,000 per infringement. She might not sucker you but she will sucker someone and its time the media and politicians wise up and protect us.