Guest column: Neither tech advocates nor copyright holders are happy with the rules for the use of works online

Los Angeles Times

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, Sept. 26:

What do you get when you replace the original dialogue from classic Peanuts comic strips with lyrics from songs by the beloved British indie-rock band The Smiths? A wry and clever blog that a major record company tries to shut down.

The case of This Charming Charlie, a blog that features Peanuts characters uttering lines by The Smiths, is a good example of the collateral damage caused by copyright holders struggling to protect their works against the onslaught of piracy online. The problem for the music and movie industries and their artists is so vast, they’ve had to speed up and automate the process of detecting infringement and bringing enforcement actions. That haste has led them to challenge some creative uses of their works that are wholly legitimate.

The blog’s creator, graphic designer Lauren LoPrete of Oakland, Calif., is a fan of both The Smiths and Peanuts, and she recognized the common strain of melodrama in Charles Schulz’s drawings and Morrissey’s lyrics. The specific inspiration for the mash-up, though, was the sight of Charlie Brown on a Smiths concert poster that LoPrete came across while doing research for the record label she co-founded, Loglady Records.

Launched in August, This Charming Charlie quickly attracted a spate of media coverage and 60,000 followers. But it also drew a succession of letters and takedown notices from Universal Music Publishing, which holds the copyrights to The Smiths’ songs. Tumblr, the blog’s publisher, responded by removing three of the mash-ups last week, prompting LoPrete to announce the blog’s demise.

Then she changed her mind. As her attorney, Dan Booth of Cambridge, Mass., noted in a letter to Tumblr, LoPrete’s parodic re-purposing of The Smiths’ lyrics perfectly fits the definition of a fair use: She posts only snippets of the lyrics, puts them in a wholly new context and doesn’t make any money off them or damage the market for the songs. In fact, the blog draws new attention to the long-defunct band.

Universal says that it’s no longer pursuing the matter, so LoPrete’s story has a happy ending. It didn’t look that way a week ago, however, when LoPrete was waving the white flag. Tech advocates cite numerous anecdotes like hers as evidence that the law gives copyright holders too much power to intimidate suspected infringers and squelch new forms of creativity made possible by digital technology. But copyright holders aren’t happy with the law either, which they say offers little protection from piracy on the scale that the Internet makes possible.

It’s been 15 years since Congress set up rules for the use of copyrighted material online; it’s past time for lawmakers to overhaul them so that they work better for both copyright holders and those who make fair use of their works.

©2013 Los Angeles Times