By Xiaochang Li | May 4, 2009
Recently, Viacom, in the process of of trying to “protect” their intellectual property not only managed to make copyright claims on original transformative work that is protected under fair use, they managed to censor political protest against racism in the process.
(one of the revised shirt designs available at racebending.com)
In one of their “routine sweeps,” they issued a take-down to on-demand retail platform zazzle.com for the contents of the racebending.com store, a non-profit effort that sold t-shirts to protest the all-white casting of non-white leads in the Avatar: the Last Airbender live-action film (more details on that particular controversy here and here). Racebending.com sold shirts with original art and designs, sporting slogans such as “Aang ain’t white” and “this is not a tan” (in response to a statement by one of the cast members about tanning to get into character), and “The Last Airbender: putting the Cauc back in Asian.”
None of the products on the site contained any images from the series (see them here, posted by the creator) — the only thing “in violation of Viacom’s intellectual property rights” were words used to talk about something that Viacom produces. Viacom, it seems, sees itself as owning your discussions around its properties.
We are, by now, long accustomed to epic failure on the part of DMCA takedowns initiated by major media conglomerates. Viacom, in particular, has been a visible and often hilariously illogical offender, with its memorable removal of a clip Christopher Knight put up on youtube from the show WebJunk 2.0, which had featured none other than Knight’s own campaign commercial (presumably aired without permission).
But there are two unsettling things that this instance in particular highlights. The first is a rising trend in companies deciding to “participate” and “acknowledge” and with fans and users by effectively claiming ownership over their discussions and discourse. This is, for instance, what I pointed out with Skittles use (and consequent barring of access to) the twitter feed on their front page. It is a problem of companies claiming to want conversation, but attempting only to enact control.
Related to this is then the second pattern, which is that these supposedly objective methods at issuing take-down, general search-term sweeps that don’t differentiate and make value judgements, are in fact anything but neutral. They presumes the right of large corporations — which are, lest we forget, are already part of a structure of unequal power relations — while simultaneously allowing them disavow responsibility by blaming it on the technological limitations. That is to say, Viacom, in this instance, will no doubt claim innocence to censorship by virtue of it having been “unintentional,” convieniently overlooking the fact that they have structured their use of technology in a way that makes precisely these types of “unintentional” abuses possible, and increasingly prevalent.
All of this, finally, is made all the more poignant by the fact that this case centers around a question of race. In other words, the very voices Viacom tried to silence this time around — whatever their intent — we those being raised in protest of already being silenced. Viacom is effectively making a statement that groups already struggling for representation in mainstream mass media similarly don’t even have the right to represent themselves elsewhere.