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Free culture activists are critical of the censorship by copyright practice, as seen in this Mimi & Eunice by Nina Paley webcomic on "Censorship vs. Copyright".

Copyright can be used to enact censorship. Critics of copyright argue that copyright has been abused to suppress free speech,[1][2][3] as well as criticism,[4][5] business competition,[6] academic research,[4] investigative reporting (and freedom of press)[5][7] and artistic expression.[3][8][9]

The most common form of censorship by copyright concerns the abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) either by copyright holders or by the service providers. The DMCA forces web hosts to be overly sensitive to claims of copyright infringement and act as de facto gatekeepers, infringing upon fair use as well as facilitating abuse in the form of bogus copyright claims.[3][10][8][11]


"IP censure", a cartoon discussing concepts of censorship and copyright on the occasion of the World Intellectual Property Day, is another comic critical of the practice related to activism critical of copyright.

Strong-arm deterrence tactic

The use of censorship of copyright has been described as a legal "strong-arm" tactic (guerrilla litigation) aimed at creating deterrents for future copyright infringement by educating the public about the copyright. This tactic does not require a trial, as the threat of litigation against financially vulnerable violators can often be sufficient.[8] Sometimes such activities are called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP).[7] This has also led to chilling effect, self-censorship or abuse from copyright trolls.[3][7][10][12]


The lack of consequences for perjury in DMCA claims encourages censorship. This has caused temporary takedowns of legitimate content that can be financially damaging to the legitimate copyright holder, who has no recourse for reimbursement.[4][6][7] As a consequence, DMCA has enabled copyright owners to "censor academic discussions and online criticism".[4] It has also been used by businesses to censor competition.[6] It has also been used to censor investigative reporting, and suppress political speech. This includes the use of it by parties in non-democratic states, which use international law to remove content from international (Western) platforms like YouTube.[7][13][14][15][16][17] Modern copyright has been described as "an attractive weapon to chill speech".[3]

In the context of American legislation, censorship by copyright has been said to violate the First Amendment; such abuse of copyright is supposed to be limited by fair use, but fair use has been found to be difficult to enforce due to chilling effects of copyright litigation and disparity of power between copyright holders and those seeking permission to use a work.[2][3][18] In particular, protections related to satirical use are seen as inadequate.[19]

Censorship by copyright has also been linked to reducing innovation, creativity, and limiting artistic expression. A study involving visual artists and professionals in the visual arts sector revealed that one-third have either avoided or ceased work in their domain due to worries about copyright infringement. Additionally, over half of the editors and publishers surveyed have dropped or reduced the scope of their projects because of these worries.[3][18][9] A 2005 survey of documentary makers in Canada found that 85% of them said copyright is more harmful than beneficial for their field and that it threatens their ability to produce content.[20] Such concerns have also hindered museums and libraries from digitizing and sharing cultural and scientific materials, including works for whom no living copyright holder could be identified but which are protected by the law by default (orphan works).[3][21][22]

Technology and laws that facilitate censorship

Abuse of law

Most common form of censorship by copyright concerns abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). That legislation forces web hosts to be overly sensitive to claims of copyright infringement, infringing upon fair use as well as facilitating abuse in the form of bogus copyright claims.[10][7]

Other laws that have been criticized for similar problems include the European Union's Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (Copyright Directive), and the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the concept of the right to be forgotten.[7]

Automated copyright enforcement

The increasing prevalence of online media has led to content hosting companies developing automated solutions for copyright enforcement to help copyright holders remove alleged infringement from their services. Such solutions, however, are overprotective due to difficulties related to defining legal uses such as quotations or fair use, as well as the lack of authoritative information about who is a legitimate rights holder for which copyrighted work.[11] They are also designed from the perspective of assumption of guilt, as any claim made by copyright holders is automatically accepted, results in the takedown of allegedly offending material, and requires the accused to prove their innocence.[3][10][11]

Moreover, the risks associated with making a false accusation are low: the person accused must first submit a counterclaim to establish their copyright ownership and then take private legal action to demonstrate actual harm. They must locate the other party in order to enforce any financial compensation awarded by the judiciary.[10]

Consequentially, automated copyright detection systems built for and used by online video hosting services like Google's Content ID have been used by governments, companies and individuals to block critical reporting.[6][23][24][25] In some cases, individuals have been known to play copyrighted music to disrupt streaming, recording or other activities with the intent of getting other users' videos taken down by automated systems.[26]

Tools used in content moderation have been subject to similar criticism.[7]

History and notable examples

Earliest examples of the use of copyright law to enforce censorship relate to the British government invoking the monopoly of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers to suppress texts it deemed problematic, such as anti-Cromwellian and anti-Caroline satirical writings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To circumvent the Stationers' monopoly on print, contemporary activists used a handwriting (scribed) method of publication.[8][12][27]

It has been argued that censorship by copyright is becoming increasingly more common in the Digital Age.[12][18] It has also been called a major element of censorship found in democratic societies, otherwise critical of the concept of censorship. Hannibal Travis wrote that "copyright largely determines the accessibility and cost of information in a democratic society, and that it grants rights holders substantial powers of censorship through the threat of prosecution for infringement".[12] Modern copyright laws and associated technologies developed to enforce it have been described as "wielded by powerful government and business officials as a weapon to censor independent news media and deter investigative reporting". Said laws and technologies have been generally developed in the Global North, and are abused there as well, but are even more commonly abused in the Global South, where traditions and protections of free speech are weaker.[7]

Incidents described as censorship by copyright include:

See also


  1. ^ Masnick, Mike (26 July 2013). "Why Yes, Copyright Can Be Used To Censor, And 'Fair Use Creep' Is Also Called 'Free Speech'". Techdirt. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  2. ^ a b Haber, Eldar (2013–2014). "Copyrighted Crimes: The Copyrightability of Illegal Works". Yale Journal of Law and Technology. 16: 454–501. ...censorship-by-copyright could endanger other constitutional rights, first and foremost First Amendment rights and possibly due process rights.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Reid, Amanda (Winter 2019). "Copyright Policy as Catalyst and Barrier to Innovation and Free Expression". Catholic University Law Review. 68 (1): 33–86. The attractiveness of modem copyright as a weapon to chill speech is due to four interrelated factors: (1) the ease and "ubiquity" of infringement; (2) the simplicity of asserting a prima facie infringement case; (3) the uncertainty of available defenses, like fair use; and (4) the threat of hefty statutory penalties. Censorship by copyright undermines core First Amendment principles. Copyright out of balance threatens our liberty to learn. Copyright threatens access to the building blocks of learning and culture.
  4. ^ a b c d e Westbrook, Steve (9 April 2009). Composition and Copyright: Perspectives on Teaching, Text-making, and Fair Use. State University of New York Press. p. 37-38. ISBN 978-1-4384-2599-3.
  5. ^ a b Gagliano, Cara (20 January 2023). "For Would-Be Censors and the Thin-Skinned, Copyright Law Offers Powerful Tools". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  6. ^ a b c d Cobia, Jeffrey (2008). "The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Takedown Notice Procedure: Misuses, Abuses, and Shortcomings of the Process". Minnesota Journal of Law Science & Technology. 1: 391–393 – via Hein Online.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Radsch, Courtney (2023). "Weaponizing Privacy and Copyright Law for Censorship". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.4464300. ISSN 1556-5068.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Ghosh, Arjun (2013). "Censorship through Copyright: From print to digital media". Social Scientist. 41 (1/2): 51–68. ISSN 0970-0293. JSTOR 23611080.
  9. ^ a b Aufderheide, Patricia; Milosevic, Tijana; Bello, Bryan (October 2016). "The impact of copyright permissions culture on the US visual arts community: The consequences of fear of fair use". New Media & Society. 18 (9): 2012–2027. doi:10.1177/1461444815575018. ISSN 1461-4448.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Hern, Alex (23 May 2016). "Revealed: How copyright law is being misused to remove material from the internet". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  11. ^ a b c d "How Copyright Bots are Governing Free Speech Online". Digital Freedom Fund. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  12. ^ a b c d Travis, Hannibal (Spring 2000). "Pirates of the Information Infrastructure: Blackstonian Copyright and the First Amendment" (PDF). Berkeley Technology Law Journal. 15 (2): 777–864.
  13. ^ a b "Turkish gov't uses TRT as a weapon to spread its censorship to YouTube". International Journalists Association. 28 December 2020. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  14. ^ Palazzolo, Andrea Fuller, Kirsten Grind and Joe. "Google Hides News, Tricked by Fake Claims". WSJ. Retrieved 2 April 2024.((cite news)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Rodríguez, Natalia Krapiva, Esq , Rodrigo (22 October 2020). "Warning: repressive regimes are using DMCA takedown demands to censor activists". Access Now. Retrieved 3 April 2024.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Vílchez, Dánae (6 May 2020). "YouTube censors independent Nicaraguan news outlets after copyright complaints from Ortega-owned media". Committee to Protect Journalists. Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  17. ^ Stoltz, Daniel Nazer and Mitch (19 January 2017). "Copyright Shouldn't Be A Tool of Censorship". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  18. ^ a b c Rathemacher, Andrée J. (1 July 2012). "Panel Discussion on Libraries and Best Practices in Fair Use". Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship. 24 (3): 230–238. doi:10.1080/1941126X.2012.706139. ISSN 1941-126X.
  19. ^ Collado, Adriana (June 2004). "Unfair Use: The Lack of Fair Use Protection for Satire under 107 of the Copyright Act". Journal of Technology Law & Policy. 9 (1): 65–80.
  20. ^ a b Kirwan Cox, Censorship by Copyright: Report of the DOC Copyright Survey, Rigaud, 2005
  21. ^ The Art Institute of Chicago et. al, Comments on Orphan Works and Mass Digitization (4 February 2013)
  22. ^ Sarah E. Thomas, Response by the Cornell University Library to the Notice of Inquiry Concerning Orphan Works, (23 March 2005) #12;
  23. ^ "The Mistake So Bad, That Even YouTube Says Its Copyright Bot 'Really Blew It'". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 29 January 2019. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  24. ^ a b Thomas, Dexter (9 February 2021). "Is This Beverly Hills Cop Playing Sublime's 'Santeria' to Avoid Being Live-Streamed?". Vice. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  25. ^ Geigner, Timothy (30 September 2021). "Copyright Continues To Be Abused To Censor Critics By Entities Both Big And Small". Techdirt. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  26. ^ a b Masnick, Mike (4 August 2022). "Please Don't Normalize Copyright As A Tool For Censorship". Techdirt. Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  27. ^ Jenkins, Joseph S. (2013). "Copyright Law and Political Theology: Censorship and the Forebear's Desire". Law and Literature. 25 (1): 65–84. doi:10.1525/lal.2013.25.1.65. ISSN 1535-685X. JSTOR 10.1525/lal.2013.25.1.65.
  28. ^ Greene, Thomas C. "SDMI cracks revealed". Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  29. ^ "Paranormalist Claims Three-Second Copyright in Attempt to Censor Critical Video". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  30. ^ Cheng, Jacqui (9 May 2007). "EFF to psychic: There will be a DMCA abuse suit in the near future". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  31. ^ "Real Estate Developers Censor Community Critic's Website". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  32. ^ "'Hogwarts pandal' may be pulled down over copyright". The Times of India. 12 October 2007. ISSN 0971-8257. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  33. ^ "Cowboy Group Tries to Censor Animal Welfare Nonprofit". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  34. ^ "CBS News Censors McCain Ad During Heated Presidential Campaign". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  35. ^ "Retailer Tries to Censor "Photoshop Disaster" Advertisement". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  36. ^ "A morte da Falha de São Paulo". Diário do Centro do Mundo (in Brazilian Portuguese). 27 December 2018.
  37. ^ "Universal Music Group Censors Political Speech and Ignores Fair Use". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 12 November 2015. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  38. ^ Hern, Alex (9 March 2015). "WordPress in court victory over blogger censored by 'Straight Pride UK'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 3 April 2024.
  39. ^ Sutton, Maira (15 May 2014). "State Censorship by Copyright? Spanish Firm Abuses DMCA to Silence Critics of Ecuador's Government". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  40. ^ Palmer, Ewan (17 February 2014). "YouTube to Terminate Account of Scientist who Debunked Aids Denialist Movie". International Business Times. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  41. ^ Geigner, Timothy (14 February 2014). "AIDS Denial Crazies Go All DMCA On Videos Educating People Of Their Craziness". Techdirt. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  42. ^ McSherry, Corynne (18 February 2014). "New Entrants in the Takedown Hall of Shame: AIDS Deniers and Televangelists (Updated)". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  43. ^ Kobie, Nicole (17 February 2014). "Censorship by copyright: Myles Powers and abuse of DMCA takedowns". PC Pro. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  44. ^ Palmer, Ewan (19 February 2014). "Scientist's YouTube Account Remains Open Following Aids Denialist Censorship Claims". International Business Times. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  45. ^ Marcial Pérez, David (10 February 2024). "Redes y medios retiran el polémico video de Máynez y Samuel García por derechos de autor" [Networks and media remove the controversial video of Máynez and Samuel García due to copyright issues]. El País (in Spanish). Retrieved 17 April 2024.