Friday, December 05, 2008

Student 'Download 4 Free' project killed by Amazon lawyers

I'm always irritated when students get hassled by lawyers. The latest case in a long line involves a Firefox add-on, created by two students at at the Media Design M.A. department of the Piet Zwart Institute Rotterdam, which inserts a button when visiting linking to and alternative 'free' versions of the item being viewed. It won't have helped the students that the project got a lot of publicity and the button label says "Download 4 Free" but we do know that as these technologies have developed and we play with them, we trip over all kinds of existing commercial, political, social and other established interests. Should we protect those interests at the expense of exploring the possibilities of new technologies or should we trample over them to facilitate such exploration? It all depends... The course director, Florian Cramer, takes up the story on the nettime-1 list.
"Via its provider, the project received a take down request by the
lawyers of yesterday. In our point of view, the legal grounds
for that are contestable since the add-on itself did not download
anything. It only provided a user interface link between the web sites and Nevertheless, the creators complied to
the request, taking both the add-on and original web site offline.

What is perhaps more disturbing however, are the openly hostile and
aggressive Internet user comments in blogs and on Unlike in a
comparable situation only a couple of years ago, the majority of
commentators failed to see the highly parodistic and artistic nature of
"Pirates of the Amazon". The project was created by two students at the
Media Design M.A. department of the Piet Zwart Institute Rotterdam, one
of them being a student in the course, the other being an exchange
student from the New Media programme of Merz Akademie Stuttgart. The
work was part of a regular trimester project. We - jaromil, the project
tutor, and Florian Cramer, the head of the course - were the academic
supervisors of this work. We supported and encouraged it from its early
beginnings. What's more, we're proud to have such students and such
interesting work coming out of our teaching.

Apart from its humorous value and cleverness, the project is interesting
on many levels and layers: For example, not just as a funny artistic
hack of and The Pirate Bay, but also as a critique of
mainstream media consumer culture creating the great "content" overlap
between the two sites. We clearly see this project as a practical media
experiment and artistic design investigation into the status of media
creation, distribution and consumption on the Internet.

With the take down notice from, our students have been scared
away from pursuing their art, research and learning in our institute. We
do not want a culture in which students have to preemptively censor
their study because their work confronts culture with controversial and
challenging issues."
I guess doing a 'get this free elsewhere' hack on a major commercial website, in the run up to Christmas, during a global credit crunch, wasn't the best time to be trying this kind of joke, especially if you wanted to avoid the attentions of m'learned friends. Once it got noticed there was a virtually cast iron guarantee that the instigators would be hearing from Amazon's lawyers. Director Cramer has a point, though, regarding the educational value of such a project, which would potentially qualify it as meeting a substantial non infringing uses test. Whether it would pass the Grokster inducing infringement test is another matter. I'll leave to the reader to decide whether the offence to the established commercial interest (Amazon) in this case should be protected absolutely at the expense of such a project or whether the project should be protected from the established commercial interest. Perhaps the value for the students has already been realised even if they have decided to remove the add-on from the web following the cease and desist letter. At least they weren't threatened with criminal sanctions under computer crime laws. Me? I don't like students having to suffer this kind of hassle but this is probably not a set of circumstances that it would be advisable to use as the basis of a test case and students also need to learn to choose their battles wisely.

Thanks to Dan McQuillan via the ORG list for the pointer.

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