Billy Dembski, the Isaac Newton of Information, is in trouble. He took an animation that Harvard University commissioned from XVIVO, modified it in various ways (or used a copy someone else modified), put a new title on it, and used it without permission of either Harvard or XVIVO. It appears he requested permission, was denied, and used it anyway. Bad.
Alas, the video of the event gets blurry at the precise moment when it might or might not show the copyright and credits for the video, but the video he used certainly is modified without permission and is used without permission. Both of those are academic no-nos, and also get him into a sticky legal situation. His response has been to notpologize and promise never again to do the thing he’s sure he didn’t do wrong.
He claims he got the video from the web, and that the voice isn’t his. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know where he got it, or whose voice is dubbed over the video. If it’s his voice, then he should take responsibility (and it does indeed sound a lot like him, like someone sped up his voice and perhaps the video). If it isn’t his voice, he should give proper credit to the source.
Using copyrighted footage in a commercial presentation is clearly against the law. Using ideas and products of other people without permission is also against the law, and also violates accepted norms of the academic world. Academics produce ideas, and it is improper to take those ideas without giving proper credit. There’s a reason that teachers tend to start the year by reminding students of the serious consequences that can result from plagiarism, and not for other rulebreaking; those rules matter.
Of course, rules tend not to matter to the ID advocates. When rules get in their way, they simply dismiss them as “Darwinist dogma.” When the courts tell them they broke the rules, they just look for new ways around them. And when they get an angry letter from Harvard’s lawyers, they just slink away and try again.
There is one small matter worth addressing, though. Notwithstanding what Mike Dunford says, copyright violation isn’t theft.
My Scibling writes:
I wouldn’t argue that electronic copyright infringement is analogous to stealing a physical object. I’d argue that there’s absolutely no difference worth mentioning between the two — except possibly who the victim is.
This is patently absurd. Theft does the following things:
- it deprives the owner of the use of her property without compensation
- it provides the thief with that property without cost
- it increases market scarcity, increasing costs to all
Copyright infringement does not deprive the owner of the use of his property (and whether it deprives the owner of income is often debatable). It does provide the infringer with something at no cost. It doesn’t produce market scarcity (electrons being essentially free), and the effect on market prices is debatable.
This is not to say that copyright infringement is A‑OK, just that it is pretty easy to distinguish it from theft on moral grounds.
There’s also a strong case to be made for reform of existing copyright law, for a substantial expansion of fair use, a decrease in copyright terms, and improvements in the handling of copyrighted works whose authors cannot be located. A recent law review article by John Tehranian (PDF) makes the point very nicely:
To illustrate the unwitting infringement that has become quotidian for the average American, take an ordinary day in the life of a hypothetical law professor named John. …
Following common practice, he has set his mail browser to automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s copyrighted text—their email— represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding. Within an hour, the twenty reply and forward emails sent by John have exposed him to $3 million in statutory damages
After spending some time catching up on the latest news, John attends his Constitutional Law class, where he distributes copies of three just-published Internet articles presenting analyses of a Supreme Court decision handed down only hours ago. Unfortunately, despite his concern for his students’ edification, John has just engaged in the unauthorized reproduction of three literary works in violation of the Copyright Act.
Professor John then attends a faculty meeting… Doodling … provides an ideal escape. …[H]e finds himself thinking of Frank Gehry’s early sketches for the Bilbao Guggenheim as he draws a series of swirling lines that roughly approximate the design of the building. He has created an unauthorized derivative of a copyrighted architectural rendering.
Later that afternoon, John attends his Law and Literature class…. He has assigned e.e. cumming’s 1931 poem i sing of Olaf glad and big to the students. As a prelude to class discussion, he reads the poem in its entirety, thereby engaging in an unauthorized public performance of the copyrighted literary work.
Before leaving work, he remembers to email his family five photographs of the Utes football game he attended the previous Saturday. His friend had taken the photographs. And while she had given him the prints, ownership of the physical work and its underlying intellectual property are not tied together. Quite simply, the copyright to the photograph subsists in and remains with its author, John’s friend. As such, by copying, distributing, and publicly displaying the copyrighted photographs, John is once again piling up the infringements.
In the late afternoon, John takes his daily swim at the university pool. Before he jumps into the water, he discards his T‑shirt, revealing a Captain Caveman tattoo on his right shoulder. Not only did he violate Hanna-Barbera’s copyright when he got the tattoo—after all, it is an unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted work—he has now engaged in a unauthorized public display of the animated character. More ominously, the Copyright Act allows for the “impounding” and “destruction or other reasonable disposition” of any infringing work. Sporting the tattoo, John has become the infringing work. At best, therefore, he will have to undergo court-mandated laser tattoo removal. At worst, he faces imminent “destruction.”
That evening, John attends a restaurant dinner celebrating a friend’s birthday. At the end of the evening, he joins the other guests in singing “Happy Birthday.” The moment is captured on his cellphone camera. He has consequently infringed on the copyrighted musical composition by publicly performing the song and reproducing the song in the video recording without authorization. Additionally, his video footage captures not only his friend but clearly documents the art work hanging on the wall behind his friend… John’s incidental and even accidental use of [the artwork] in the video nevertheless constitutes an unauthorized reproduction …
At the end of the day, John checks his mailbox, where he finds the latest issue of an artsy hipster rag to which he subscribes. The ’zine, named Found, …collects and catalogues curious notes, drawings, and other items of interest that readers find lying in city streets, public transportation, and other random places. In short, John has purchased a magazine containing the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public display of fifty copyrighted notes and drawings. His knowing, material contribution to Found’s fifty acts of infringement subjects John to secondary liability in the amount of $7.5 million.
By the end of the day, John has infringed the copyrights of twenty emails, three legal articles, an architectural rendering, a poem, five photographs, an animated character, a musical composition, a painting, and fifty notes and drawings. All told, he has committed at least eighty-three acts of infringement and faces liability in the amount of $12.45 million (to say nothing of potential criminal charges). There is nothing particularly extraordinary about John’s activities.
If the law supposes that (as they say), the law is an ass. These are all copyright violations, and similar such violations happen all around us. Either we are all thieves, copyright is grossly over-broad, or copyright is not theft. Those options are not mutually exclusive, I suppose.
This does not excuse Dembski. The difference between his copyright violation and the hypothetical professor’s violations is that he only violated copyright because the copyright-holders exercised their right to refuse his permission to incorporate their work into his. And there is no excuse for that. While Hanna-Barbera’s claim to the law professor’s shoulder is dubious, Harvard’s claim against Dembski is unambiguous. Should the mysterious narrator ever come forward, his claim will be even stronger, since Dembski has admitted to plagiarizing his work.