Originally published at: Pluralistic: 31 Jan 2022 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
- Grappling with Big Wrestling: Vince McMahon has a monopoly on violence.
- Podcasting about the copyleft trolls who tried to shake me down: Pixsy and the depravity of speculative invoicing.
- This day in history: 2002, 2012, 2017, 2021
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading
Grappling with Big Wrestling (permalink)
If you're a Very Online person, it's easy to think that tech is a uniquely monopolized industry. How could you not – anyone over the age of 30 has had a front row seat for the transformation of the wild and wooly early web into "a group of five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four."
There's a chorus of captured economists who will tell you that Big Tech's monopolization was inevitable, the result of "network effects." They're wrong. Big Tech got big by using their access to capital to buy or neutralize their rivals, and then capture their regulators to secure policy that made it illegal to compete with them:
One of the most compelling counterarguments to the tech apologists' insistence that monopoly is "natural" is the presence of monopolies is so many other industries, from booze to tennis shoes to banks to cheerleading to candy.
Earlier this month, The American Prospect launched a new series called "The Rollup," which would document the dirty tricks and negative consequences of monopolization in all kinds of industries, starting with hospital beds.
The latest Rollup installment, by Jarod Facundo, explores the wild and larger-than-life monopolization of professional wrestling, in which dozens of leagues have been destroyed or absorbed by Vince McMahon and his WWE league:
A lot of us first heard about this in 2019, John Oliver did a horrifying segment on the phenomenon, reporting on how McMahon's monopsony power (a "monopsony" is a market with only one buyer; if you're a wrestler, WWE is the only customer for your labor) to misclassify performers as contractors, deny them health insurance, and leave them to beg on Gofundme for pennies to help them die with dignity of their workplace-related injuries.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse, as is lavishly documented in an antitrust complaint that the struggling Major League Wrestling League (MWL) filed earlier this month, describing how WWE put it in an anticompetitive sleeper hold.
In the 70s, there were 32 wrestling promoters in the North American market, all competing for audiences and performers, all bidding to sew up TV rights with different broadcasters. Wrestlers like Andre the Giant were able to improve their working conditions by playing off rival leagues against one another.
In a single lifetime, the market has collapsed, with 85% market-share going to WWE and McMahon, the billionaire major Trump donor whose loyalty was rewarded with a plum job as head of Trump's Small Business Administration.
Facundo's article lays out the case for WWE as a monopolist that maintains its position through dirty tricks, rather than excellence. For starters, WWE's ratings are in the toilet, even as its profitability has climbed, a strong indicator that the company is able to abuse its market power to squeeze suppliers and customers to its advantage even as the quality of its offerings has declined.
Rivals leagues like Impact have struggled for market oxygen, though opinions vary as to why. However, MWE's struggles are a lot easier to explain. For example, MLW lost a lucrative deal with Vice TV after WWE threatened to cancel a lucrative partnership, a nakedly illegal threat that emanated from McMahon, personally.
WWE then struck a deal with Fox's Tubi subsidiary to air its matches, but that deal, too, was canceled when WWE threatened to terminate its contract with Fox if it wasn't.
The thing is, if you swap out the soap-opera storylines, the wrestling trunks and the flamboyant dialog, all of this is structurally identical to how other monopolists maintain their control over other industries. The wrestling monopoly has a different skin, but it's got the same bones as all those other industries.
I think that's cause for real hope. As James Boyle has noted, there is a strong parallel here to the way that the term "ecology" turned a bunch of disparate issues into a movement.
Before the term ecology, it wasn't clear that fighting to save owls was connected to fighting to save the ozone layer. What do charismatic nocturnal avians have to do with the gaseous composition of the upper atmosphere? It was "ecology" that created solidarity among activists who had been fragmented before, and made them a force to reckon with.
Today, there are wrestling fans who are miserable about their favorite performers' slow medical disintegration, and there are tech users who hate the monopolization of the net, and there are craft beer drinkers furious about the Big Two breweries' predatory destruction of their favorite microbreweries.
All of these groups are fighting the same fight, they just don't know it – yet. But if they do wise up to their shared cause – if they draw a line between the destruction of the wrestling ecosystem and the giant container ship stuck in the Suez Canal – then they'll be unstoppable.
alt="A hand on a multibutton mouse, the body behind it is blurred and out-of-focus; a larger 'DANGER' label in red, white and black, has been superimposed over it. Nenad Stojkovic, CC BY 2.0, modified.">
Podcasting about the copyleft trolls who tried to shake me down (permalink)
This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column "A Bug in Early Creative Commons Licenses Has Enabled a New Breed of Superpredator," describing my bizarre run-in with a group of copyleft trolls who tried to shake me down for $600.
What's a copyleft troll, you ask? Well, in many ways, they're like copyright trolls: sleazy operators who hunt for trivial but infringing uses of their clients' copyrighted works and threaten to sue for statutory damages of $150,000 unless their victims pay for a "license" costing anywhere from $250 to $10,000.
But copyleft trolls are, if anything, even sleazier, because they target non-infringing uses of copyrighted works that have been released under early versions of Creative Commons licenses. These early licenses all shared a minor oversight: they "terminat[ed] automatically upon any breach."
That meant that if you violated the license terms in any way, you were no longer allowed to post or use the work. That may sound reasonable, but in the hands of copyleft trolls, it's anything but. They seek out minor defects in users' attribution of Creative Commons works – for example, if you forget to give the URL of the license in your credit to the original.
These aren't copyright infringements, they're minor administrative oversights. Any good-faith use of Creative Commons license would respond to these errors with requests for correction, not legal threats. Indeed, the current versions of the CC licenses require this, giving users a mandatory 30 day period to respond to requests for correction.
But copyleft trolls don't use the current version. Instead, they favor the CC 2.0 licenses, which were superceded in 2007 (!), and which have the strictest attribution requirements. Copyleft trolls use this strictness to spring a trap on unsuspecting users and real multimillion-dollar paydays.
For example, Larry Philpot is a country music photographer whose side-hustle is copyleft trolling (not my characterization – that's what federal judges call him). Philpot uploads photos of performers to Wikimedia Commons under CC 2.0 licenses with a specific attribution requirement. Users who fail to see this fine print get hit by "speculative invoices" demanding "license payments." Philpot came on my radar when he shook down MetaBrainz, the charity whose board I've been volunteering on for 15 years (we beat him).
But Philpot's trolling pales in comparison to Marco Verch. Verch has a largely automated process that commissions cheap photo-illustrations from photographers in poor countries via Upwork based on each day's CNN headlines. His Upwork terms require these photographers to assign their copyright to Verch, and he then releases them as CC 2.0 works and waits for naive users to grab them and make a small attribution error, then he sends them a legal demand. Verch claims he makes millions this way, and only has to work four hours per week to sustain it. He says that copyleft trolling has freed him to pursue his hobby, running. Verch's trolling has killed at least one small charity, a Dutch group that couldn't afford his demands.
Last November, I published an article that I illustrated with a CC 2.0 Attribution licensed photo by a Flickr user named Nenad Stojkovic. I correctly attributed that image to him on Twitter, Tumblr, Mastodon, Medium, and on my WordPress blog.
So imagine my surprise when I got repeated legal threats from Pixsy, a company that bills itself as a defender of photographers' copyrights, demanding that I pay a $600 "license fee" that I clearly didn't owe. Pixsy sent the email to me with a line indicating they thought I lived in Canada and addressed their correspondence to "Colin," not "Cory."
These may seem like petty errors (I haven't lived in Canada since the previous millennium), but they are precisely the kinds of errors Pixsy maintains should produce massive liabilities in others – $150,000 statutory damages awards!
Pixsy raises all kinds of red flags. Not only are they monumentally sloppy, but their reps do not sign their legal threats with their full names, and in their correspondence, they strongly implied that they send these threats without any legal review. This is completely unethical and is not standard practice. It is the kind of thing that bar associations threaten their members' licenses over.
Pixsy refused to answer any of my questions about the matter, but after I published my article, Pixsy posted a single, ominous tweet seeking to discredit me.
This is pretty appalling behavior that indicates an utter lack of contrition or sense of fairness. By contrast, I made a point of seeking out and citing people who use Pixsy's service for legitimate copyright enforcement, doing my best to represent the company's perspective even though they refused to discuss the matter with me.
(Fun fact: Pixsy has represented Marco Verch in dozens of US lawsuits)
The good news is, Pixsy's copyleft trolling business's days are numbered. Sites like Wikimedia Commons are wising up to copyleft trolls and embedding attribution right in their photos:
Flickr is updating its service – which was horribly neglected by the previous owners, Yahoo and Verizon – with updated licenses, one-click attribution strings and warnings on images with out-of date licenses.
Creative Commons is also rolling out a host of anti-trolling measures, including this excellent "Principles for License Enforcement" white-paper.
And Openverse, the CC search tool, has added one-click attributions.
But as I note in the article, the underlying idea of a robosigning copyright lawyer who automatically victimizes people based on an algorithmic accusation of infringement is alive and well, and the US Copyright Office is currently planning to make this a legal requirement for all online platforms:
Here's the podcast episode:
And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):
And here's the RSS feed for my podcast:
This day in history (permalink)
#10yrsago Scientists and scholars boycott Elsevier over bad business practices and copyright maximalism http://thecostofknowledge.com/
#10yrsago DRM is to publishing as junk science was to Stalinism https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/cory-doctorow/article/50413-with-a-little-help-digital-lysenkoism.html
#10yrsago Judge: to ask for anonymity in porno copyright troll case, you must enter your name into the public record https://www.eff.org/press/releases/eff-asks-judge-prevent-%E2%80%98catch-22%E2%80%99-porn-downloading-lawsuit
#5yrsago Trump’s favorite voter fraud expert is registered to vote in three states https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-us-news-ap-top-news-elections-voting-80497cfb5f054c9b8c9e0f8f5ca30a62
#5yrsago Six Wakes: a locked-room science fiction murder mystery, delightfully confounded by cloning and memory backups https://memex.craphound.com/2017/01/31/six-wakes-a-locked-room-science-fiction-murder-mystery-delightfully-confounded-by-cloning-and-memory-backups/
#1yrago Know Nothings, conspiratorialism and Pastel Q https://pluralistic.net/2021/01/31/rhymes-with-pastel-q/#paranoid-style
Today's top sources:
- Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Friday's progress: 529 words (57078 words total).
Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. Friday's progress: 413 words (3380 words total).
A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING
A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. SECOND DRAFT COMPLETE
A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED
A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED
Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.
Latest podcast: A Bug in Early Creative Commons Licenses Has Enabled a New Breed of Superpredator (https://craphound.com/news/2022/01/30/a-bug-in-early-creative-commons-licenses-has-enabled-a-new-breed-of-superpredator/)
- Boskone 59 (Feb 18-20)
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985 (City Lights), Feb 27
Emerging Technologies For the Enterprise, Apr 19-20
- The End of Uber (The War on Cars)
Moral Panic (Drug Science Podcast)
- "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59 (print edition: https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism/9781736205907) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1562/_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer.html.
- Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022
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