Are Tumblr users right to be worried about posting copyrighted material?
On bad days, Tumblr is a panic factory. Its reblog function allows memes and news stories to be shared with ease, but that also means rumors spread incredibly fast, traveling across the site before the proverbial truth has had time to put its boots on.
The latest Tumblr community meltdown is the result of the site’s copyright policy, which states that accounts can be terminated for posting copyrighted material. According to rumor, an unknown number of blogs were suddenly deleted because they were posting copyrighted music. Convinced that the axe was about to fall, many users decided to delete all of their audio posts or back up their entire blogs on other sites.
Some people posted lists of FAQs, blaming the introduction of a “get” button for the apparent increase in account terminations. This button, apparently introduced on February 1, allows users to download music from audio posts. As a result, Tumblr began cracking down on copyright violations to avoid the community turning the site into a hotbed of music piracy.
A blogger named stewardessme (whose account was flagged for copyright violation and has since been deleted) blamed these “get” buttons and explained that “the entire process is automated,” including content removal and deletion.
A reblog of stewardessme’s post now has more than 115,000 notes, but according to Tumblr staff, it is inaccurate.
First of all, there is no such thing as a “get” button. When the Daily Dot asked Tumblr’s Head of Communications Katherine Barna about this, she said, “There is no download button or ‘get’ button; we haven’t implemented either of those and our policy here has not changed.”
We were unable to find any evidence that a download button ever existed on the site. There is a third-party extension called XKit that introduced a “get” button three years ago. Users may have confused this third-party option with an official Tumblr update.
Tumblr’s copyright infringement policy
To clarify how these things work, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to how Tumblr handles copyright violations, drawn from the site’s community guidelines and questions answered by Nicole Blumenfeld, Tumblr’s Director of Trust and Safety.
- Tumblr staff “do not actively monitor” the site for copyright violations, and they only take action when notified by a copyright holder. If a copyright holder objects to their intellectual property being shared, they can file a claim through Tumblr’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) form.
- If a post violates copyright, Tumblr staff delete it and notify the user via email.
- If an account racks up three such notifications in 18 months, it will be terminated, as will any other accounts set up by the same user.
- If a user thinks a copyright claim is invalid, he or she can file a DMCA counter-notice. If successful, the applicable “strike” will be removed from their record and the post in question will be restored. According to Blumenfeld, ten Tumblr employees review each claim and counter-claim.
It’s likely that people began paying more attention to Tumblr’s copyright rules after a popular blogger named nosdrinker was removed from the site. After this removal came the FAQ posts and the rush to delete audio content in case it was flagged for copyright infringement. Finally, people began noticing that a lot of recent DMCA notices came from the same source: IFPI, a music-rights organization that recently went on a spree of DMCA filings.
This renewed push gave Tumblr users a common enemy in the form of IFPI’s anti-piracy director, Jeremy Banks, whose name appears on each of the copyright infringement emails. He’s even namechecked in this “Hitler rants about Tumblr music takedowns” video:
This reaction may seem extreme, but it makes sense given much copyrighted content is posted on the site every day. For example, one user claims that their account was flagged for (among other things) the innocuous crime of posting an edited X-Men: Days of Future Past image.
At least one person claims to have lost their Tumblr account without breaking the “three strikes” rule. Musician and blogger Allegra Rosenberg told the Daily Dot in an email, “I received absolutely no warning from Tumblr— the only email I got regarding any copyright violation was the termination notice they sent me after they’d deleted my account.”
When Rosenberg filed a DMCA counter-notice, she says, she was told that the offending post was “the Doctor Who theme song, posted with a bunch of gifs below it in celebration of the Doctor Who Series 6 premiere— in April 2011.”
The deletion of Rosenberg’s blog meant the loss of 50,000 posts and thousands of followers, a portfolio of work as a social media professional, and a five-year record of her life spanning high school and college. This story represents the kind of worst-case scenario that many Tumblr users dread.
When asked if an account might have been deleted after only one copyright violation, Nicole Blumenfeld dismissed this on the grounds that all DMCA counter-notices were checked by Tumblr staff. Regarding the possibility of notification emails getting lost in spam folders, she confirmed that Tumblr staff use an email service to prevent this from happening.
These assurances may quell the panic among Tumblr users, but they’re unlikely to solve the problem entirely. Rumors have already done their work, and because only a tiny percentage of copyright violations are penalized, the sporadic account terminations seem all the more random.
The good news is that it’s in Tumblr’s best interests to turn a blind eye to low-level copyright violation. If they really did start cracking down on copyrighted content en masse, they’d have to delete almost every account on the site—possibly beginning with cofounder David Karp.
Update 3:00pm CT, Feb. 19: Added information about a third-party tool that offers a feature similar to one that users described seeing on Tumblr.
Photo via Jazills/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
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