Protecting intellectual property on the web can be a dicey proposition. In the vast and bountiful wilderness that has become the internet, individuals can misappropriate or blatantly steal what someone else has created and profit from the material without the creator ever knowing.
The damage to the economy is well-recorded for the creative industries. A 2019 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that digital piracy of videos displaces between $30 billion and $70 billion in annual revenue. The Chamber of Commerce also connects the practice to a loss of 230,000 to 560,000 jobs each year.
‘Copyright exists from the moment the work is created’
Marc Sazer, a violinist, explains the human consequences of IP theft. “When our work is stolen, we’ve been robbed of our living,” he told the Department for Professional Employees (DPE) — a coalition of 24 national unions touching various sectors. “We are artists, but we are also working people who depend on the intellectual property that we create to pay for our homes, families, health care, and more.”
Perhaps, the law is at fault. The governing law for intellectual property on the internet is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which popped onto the scene 24 years ago. Some, including the DPE, call it “outdated.” Others, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that defends civil liberties like privacy and free speech on the internet, note the creative freedom the law’s processes have afforded the web.
Law reform may (or may not) be part of the solution. Thankfully, dancing around legal hypotheticals isn’t necessary to find progress in protection. After all, the U.S. Copyright Office teaches, “Copyright exists from the moment the work is created.”
Getting back to the basics: Citing and paying creators
Qualitative researcher Dr. Carey Yazeed jokes that her pronouns are, “Cite me; pay me.” That’s how preciously she now holds those actions. She learned recently that those simple steps are not always guaranteed when you put your intellectual property into the world.
Just last year, Dr. Yazeed posted a thought piece that went viral — more than once. Within just one month, it got 30,000 hits. She said, at first, she was just trying to keep up with moderating all the comments on social media, positive and negative responses alike. Then, she started to hear that others were being asked to speak on the topic of her article, even conducting workshops and trainings, without having relevant expertise.
In a post about the experience, Dr. Yazeed shared, “…I learned from several individuals who shared my article with their audiences on social media that they were invited to be guests on several podcasts, offered paid speaking engagements and served on panel discussions.” One man asked if Dr. Yazeed herself had received requests to elaborate on her ideas. The answer? Barely.
More than one individual has simply pasted pieces of her work directly to social media — without quotation or attribution. Dr. Yazeed also learned second-hand about a training program that was created for mental health clinicians at a university. “And it was based on my article,” she said. No one had reached out to her for permission or even a conversation. And when Dr. Yazeed contacted the creator of the program, she received no response.
One man reposted her article and was starting to get requests to speak on the topic. He kindly redirected the requests to Dr. Yazeed. Surprisingly, many insisted that he speak instead. He didn’t, but clearly not everyone has taken that ethical stand.
Yes, race and gender are relevant to the issue of intellectual property theft
Dr. Yazeed notes that the individuals she’s seen benefiting from her work have been Black men and white women, a fact that may not seem relevant to some. Dr. Yazeed said she recognizes that society doesn’t see IP theft as a specific problem for Black women. But, she added, “I can say that, since I have spoken out, I have seen other Black women come forward and share how their intellectual property has been stolen.”
A quick Google search brings up other instances of blatant theft. Of course, there’s the recent “Juneteenth ice cream” debacle, in which critics accused Walmart of stealing a flavor from Creamalicious, a company founded and led by a Black woman. Then, there are entire books that writers have based off the original research and ideas of Black women. If that’s not enough to convince you there’s a pattern here, consider this collective that centers around citing Black women.
Some have told Dr. Yazeed that the issue she’s really facing is copyright. Maybe she shouldn’t have posted her ideas in a blog format to begin with. Dr. Yazeed is pursuing copyright for her article, but she said there isn’t any easy way to protect a blog post, and you don’t really expect blogs to take off. Questions like these make her wonder, “Should I just not say anything at all?”
A #MeToo movement for Black female IP owners
Two of Dr. Yazeed’s recent speaking engagements failed to actually give her a voice. One was a virtual panel discussion in which Dr. Yazeed wasn’t given time to elaborate on her ideas. Additionally, just before the event, she was asked to exclude an element that constituted the crux of her argument. She’s not entirely sure why she was invited to speak in the first place, but all signs point to the group using her name and image to muster public interest.
Another more recent event was cancelled, even though people in the company had been showing excitement and interest in hearing what she had to say. Dr. Yazeed was told the reason for the abrupt cancellation…apparently, she is known for being a “problematic Black woman.”
For Dr. Yazeed, being called problematic isn’t her biggest concern. “Other people learn from what has happened with me…to speak up when you see that it’s being done,” she said, speaking to the issue of stolen intellectual property. “My thing is this — people are going to call us problematic anyway.”
“I think the first issue is that, as Black women, we are often told not to speak publicly about our problems,” Dr. Yazeed said. “That you keep those things either to yourself or they're shared with your inner circle, but you don't make it public. And so, I think the problem becomes that a lot of us think that this is only happening to me, and it's not happening to anyone else.”
She said it is easy to start believing that there’s nothing you can do when your intellectual property is stolen. After all, the individual or company that took from you could simply have more money or power than you do. Plus, no one is going to believe you. Nevertheless, having the courage to share when your IP has been stolen, Dr. Yazeed emphasized, has radiating benefits that encourage others. These could be the beginnings of another #MeToo movement of sorts, building awareness around an issue that remains easily hidden from public view.
In the kindest of terms, Dr. Yazeed calls stealing intellectual property borrowing a cup of sugar with no intention of returning it. “The way you return it is — just cite the person. Give them credit so people can go and check out other stuff that they've done, even if you can’t pay us.” It’s a modest ask, and almost incredible that Dr. Yazeed even has to remind people, but sharing the significance these simple actions carry may just help transform the way Black women’s intellectual property is treated at large.
Image credit: Christina Morillo via Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.