Punditry: Eric Bauman’s World

Eric Bauman is mad. For the past week his site has been under near-constant attack by a variety of methods, his headquarters have been vandalized and countless sites have called him every name imaginable, most of them almost completely unprintable.

This whole mess, if you will recall, started when a picture of Lindsay Lohan that was lifted from the site YTMND.com and posted on Bauman’s site, ebaumsworld.com, with his watermark. However, very few believe that the image alone was the cause of the uproar. Rather, most believe that it was more of a spark, igniting an explosion that had been a long time in the making.

Nonetheless, Bauman feels that he is the victim, innocent in every regard of the word. He said that the image, which has since been removed, was submitted to his site via a contest form and that he has a signed release form for it from someone claiming to be the owner.

While that is almost certainly true, calling Bauman and his site innocent is a huge stretch of anyone’s imagination. For only the most naïve could truly believe he did not have some hand in his own problems.

Simply put, if we really lived in Bauman’s world, we would be in a very bad situation indeed.

Bauman’s World

Bauman, in his response to the attacks, said that he and his staff require signed consent forms from all submissions and, after that, thoroughly check each work for possible infringement. He said that the only reason the Lohan picture had not been taken down, at that time, was because he had all of the required paperwork and hadn’t heard from the original author.

However, Bauman’s background checking is very suspect at best. Many of the files on his server are clearly infringing on someone’s copyright. Video captures from television shows are common and almost certainly infringing. Also, doing a simple Google search for many of the items will quickly turn up dozens of other sites with the same video, animation or image, usually without Bauman’s watermark and easily predating its appearance on ebaumsworld.com

Clearly, their “manual research” doesn’t include the most basic of searches.

The truth is that, most likely, Bauman and his staff simply accept the consent forms on their face and post away, neither looking for evidence of infringement nor paying attention to any that is thrown their way. In their minds, they are covered.

However, if we all lived in Bauman’s world, the police would never investigate a crime until it is called in. You could be getting beaten by a group of thugs on a public sidewalk and a police car wouldn’t stop and, instead, would say that, if you really wanted help, you’d call and get it.

Bauman has to know that most of the content on his site is probably stolen. He might not know from where and by whom, but he does know that the content is not his and, most likely, not the property of the person submitting it.

He counts on the fact that most copyright infringement, even on a site the size of his, goes undetected and that most people, should they discover it, will have no idea what to do. It’s a bet that seems to have paid off.

However, even the times that he has been notified of infringement, his record is spotty at best. His own site has a legal page that details the various cease and desist letters that he’s gotten and many of them have been ignored. Another site, ebaumsworldsucks.com, has a link to a message board conversation on Bauman’s site where a copyright holder asks why his letter hasn’t been answered only to be attacked by other members of the forum and then banned for no discernible reason.

This, of course, is on top of the countless other complaints that Bauman ignores notices of copyright infringement. From all accounts, it seems that Bauman’s removal of the Lohan picture was the exception, not the rule, and most likely the result of the public scrutiny these attacks have brought to his site.

Submission Woes

The truth is that the format of Bauman’s site makes it ripe for incidents of copyright infringement. While offering cash rewards for submissions might seem like a great way to encourage copyright holders to submit their content, it more commonly attracts people who are looking to make a quick buck and wouldn’t think twice about stealing someone else’s content to make it happen.

To make matters worse, when you’re dealing with humorous videos, images and animations, you’re generally dealing with viral content that has been passed around the Web a million times before. Though there’s always something new to be found on the Web, creating a site such as Bauman’s, and making it as large and regularly updated as it is, is almost impossible using all original content.

Bauman himself doesn’t help matters by putting his logo on everything he posts and monetizing everything so heavily. His site, loaded with popups and other advertisements, has reportedly made him a millionaire. This has helped earn him a reputation as someone that takes other people’s content, claims it as his own and profits off of it. This has not made him popular, especially in the forums of the sites that much of his content has come from.

However, Bauman, judging from his writings, believes that he’s doing all he can. He requires a consent and release form to submit any work and part of it requires that the author swear the work does not infringe on the right of any third party. He wants people to believe that there’s nothing he can do if people lie to him and that he has only limited responsibility beyond that.

Unfortunately for him though, the law disagrees. The DMCA granted many Web sites an exemption from claims of copyright infringement. However, it only applies to sites that follow a strict set of rules and sites that only act as intermediaries, not sites that take editorial control over their content. Clearly, Ebaum’s World takes a great deal of control over their content and, whether they like it or not, are liable for any infringement that takes place on their site. (Note: This would not be true for any infringement in the forums or chatrooms, so long as they follow the other requirements of the DMCA)

Theoretically, they could be sued for any infringement that takes place on their site. Their consent forms that they tout are contracts between them and their submitters. Though they could, and most likely would, go after a submitter that landed them in serious legal troubles, the fact that they receive and approve submissions for posting makes them at least a party to the infringement.

All of this is in top of the other legal issues that such a site could face. Since they don’t have consent forms for most of the people appearing in the site’s videos and images, they could be sued for invasion or privacy and, possibly, misappropriate of image among other possible torts.

By the time all of the legal considerations enter into play, it’s very unlikely that a site like Bauman’s could ever be run completely within the bounds of law. Every post is a game of russian roulette, a lawsuit waiting to go off.

Still, that hasn’t stopped him or others like him running very popular and very profitable sites.

The Ethical Issues

But more than the legal issues, most people have been upset by the ethical ones. Bauman simply seems too quick to wash his hands of copyright infringement charges even though the infringement bears his name and has made him wealthy.

It’s similar to a landlord that requires new tenants to sign a clause not to engage in any illegal activities on the property but never investigates the matter, ignores evidence of a problem and even takes steps, such as not maintaining the building or renting property in a bad part of town, that encourages the behavior. Illegal or not, it is definitely bad citizenship.

For the Internet to work, we have to look out for one another. If large sites such as Bauman’s continue to rip off smaller content creators and hide behind consent forms signed by liars trying to make easy money, fewer people are going to want to freely post their content on the Web. Though there is certainly now shortage of free content at the moment and likely never will be, the high quality content that takes time to produce and a real sacrifice to create, will become more scarce and more locked down.

Essentially, the Internet will become less cream and more foam.

Already several popular sites have shut down due, at least in part, to copyright infringement. Others have updated less and scaled back their effors while still others that would have been otherwise, never will be. The solution to the problem is not to hide behind contracts because it’s easy or convenient, but for all of us to be good citizens and do what is right.

Was it right for thousands of people to launch such an attack on Bauman, no it wasn’t. In a civilized world, these matters are not handled with mob justice, vandalism and hacking. Bauman, however, must realize his error too. There has been an elephant in the room for some time on his site and this “war” is just the first time it’s been pointed out in such a widespread manner.

My hope is that, if anything is learned from this, it is that good copyright citizenship is a requirement, especially when dealing with small content creators that don’t know their rights and lack the resources to adequately defend themselves.

Did Bauman actively work to thwart copyright holders or simply turn a willing blind eye to infringement? Only he knows for certain. But for this issue to be resolved permanently, Bauman is going to have to evaluate his behavior and make some difficult changes, changes that might not bode well for his business model.

I have little doubt that he can do it, I just hope that he has the willingness to make it happen.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, Copyright, Ebaumsworld, YTMND[/tags]

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