The Server Test and Copyright Infringement

In a recent article on Slate, Lance Koonce talked about his recent experience of having a video he tweeted of the June 10th helicopter crash in NYC go viral. In his article, he referenced his experience as a lawyer defending against charges of copyright infringement for using an embedded tweet. 

Technologists often accuse judges and legislators of not understanding science and technology. I don’t disagree with this charge; I’m in the middle of writing something about mistakes made even at the Supreme Court level. 

However, I think technologists sometimes fail to understand the human element in how people actual use and perceive the technology. 

The particular case Koonce references, media sites embedding a tweet with picture that was originally taken by Justin Goldman. The issue partially depends on what’s known as the “Server Test,” which basically says that you can commit copyright infringement if you copy an image and place it on your server. If instead, you merely provide a link to that image on someone else’s server, you’re in the clear.

Let’s say that I want to post image that I don’t have the rights to use, like this image of a Wikipedia server, which I copied from Wikipedia1I’m actually allowed to use this image. A significant portion of the images on Wikipedia have some version of Creative Commons license, which allows others to use them. In this case, the image has CC BY-SA license, so I can use it as long as I give credit (the image is by Victor Grigas) and allow sharing of the image. Unlike many sites, Wikipedia also explicitly allows hotlinking to their images; so I’m not even violating the terms of use by linking to the image on their site..

I could copy that image, upload it to the server that hosts my website, and post it from there. It might look something like this:

Wikimedia Foundation Server

Image stored on my server

Alternatively, rather than copying the image, I could simply link to the image on the website of original owner. And then it would look like this:

Image embedded by linking to Wikipedia

So, the reader experienes no difference. But as far as I can tell, they’re treated very differently by copyright law, at least according to the ninth circuit. The more recent court decision in the second circuit comes to a different conclusion.

Now, the actual Second Circuit case, Goldman v. Breitbart News Network, LLC, involved an embedded tweet, so it would look something like this:

Image on Twitter, in an embedded tweet

The tweet at the center of this case wasn’t made by Goldman himself, but by another person who didn’t have permission to use the image, although that’s not directly relevant to my concern about the server test.

So I have three version of the exact same image shown on this page. The first two look exactly the same to the reader. The server test makes it awfully easy to use another creator’s work, not credit them, and be legally okay. That doesn’t seem right.

Am I missing something? I certainly respect a lot of the people who support the server test, but it doesn’t actually seem to reflect how people actually view a website.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I’m actually allowed to use this image. A significant portion of the images on Wikipedia have some version of Creative Commons license, which allows others to use them. In this case, the image has CC BY-SA license, so I can use it as long as I give credit (the image is by Victor Grigas) and allow sharing of the image. Unlike many sites, Wikipedia also explicitly allows hotlinking to their images; so I’m not even violating the terms of use by linking to the image on their site.

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