We Interrupt This Blog Post With a Copyright Alert

The Hugo Awards is the science fiction equivalent of Hollywood's Oscars. Authors who win Hugos for their stories and books are just like Hollywood celebrities to me and other hardcore fans. Unfortunately the Hugo Awards ceremony isn't broadcast on a major television network. Watching the Hugos used to be hard to do. You had to be there. It is easier to attend the Hugos in person than it is to get invited to the Oscars, but still not as easy as just turning on the TV.

Luckily there is the Internet! On the Internet you can watch streams of events that our mainstream media doesn't find as interesting as it should. On Sept. 2, the Hugo Awards was live-streamed from the 70th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Chicago. The Hugos are only slightly younger than the Oscars but just as full of pathos and pomp. Well, OK, a little less pomp but plenty of pathos, fun, history, goofy humor, and inside jokes.

One thing that I think the Oscars could learn from the Hugos is how to treat fans. During the Hugo Awards ceremony science fiction fans are celebrated, remembered, and rewarded along with the authors. Could you imagine Hollywood celebrating its fans by name and in person, along side the stars at the Oscars? Maybe people would start tuning in again.

Thousands of viewers were watching the Hugos from their homes on Ustream, enjoying the banter of host John Scalzi and listening to all the tearful acceptance speeches, when the video stream was suddenly cut and replaced with a grim message:

"Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement."

It took a few tweets to figure out what had happened. Clips of the winning Doctor Who episode (written by Neil Gaiman) triggered an automated copyright censor. Ustream, like many online media distribution companies has to use copyright enforcement technology to avoid costly fines and lawsuits from hypersensitive anti-piracy trade groups.

The interruption was a mistake. The clips were used by permission from the studios and the authors and artists whose rights were being protected were right there on stage. I guess piracy is such an immanent threat to humanity that the censors are set on hair triggers.

The reason this more than a silly mistake is the Center for Copyright Information's Copyright Alert System. This is a plan to educate consumers who consume copyrighted media without authorization. Every time a consumer accesses copyrighted material the CCI has a deal with major Internet Service Providers to test for legitimacy. It's all very vague but is somehow going into effect this year.

To understand the ramifications of the Copyright Alert System, let's write a science fiction story of our own: Image you're watching the Oscars (or Hugos) via your connected TV or iPad in the near future. A copyright censor event is triggered by mistake. Not only will your stream be interrupted but you might get a strike for piracy. The Copyright Alert System, will alert you, maybe by email, that you did something bad and give you some friendly anti-piracy tips. What happens after six strikes isn't clear -- even the CCI isn't sure. It's best not to rack up strikes, even if they are not your fault. You don't want to get the ban-hammer like Worldcon did.

The CCI website notes that consumers who feel targeted by mistake can request an Independent review for a $35 filing feel. Given the amount of material downloaded and streamed every day and how easy it is to make mistakes about ownership and rights, those fees could add up to a handsome sum.

Right now the CCI is focused on downloads, so this scenario is fictional for streamers. But downloaders are human beings too with certain rights and protections. As a tech guy I can assure you it's not going to be difficult for the Copyright Alert System to be applied to streaming as easily as it is to downloading.

I totally get that we have to protect intellectual property. But let's do it in a way that doesn't hurt our fans and their ability to access the Internet.