Why Is The Copyright Office Celebrating That All Our Cute Pet Photos Are Locked Up Under Copyright?



This past Saturday was (apparently) “National Pet Day.” I have pets and was unaware of this, but I’ll survive. Anyway, the US Copyright Office thought that this would be a good day to tweet out this utter nonsense:

On the off chance the Copyright Office comes to its senses and takes down that tweet, it shows a (cute!) picture of a sleeping kitten, and then says in the text of the tweet:

Happy #NationalPetDay from the Copyright Office. All 10k of the photos you took of your cat while asleep are protected by copyright from the moment they are created.

You’d think that someone at the Copyright Office would have enough sense to recognize that this message just makes basic copyright law appear to be the insane mess it truly is. Remember, under the Constitution, the sole reason that Congress is allowed to enable copyright protections over creative works is to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” In short, copyright in the US (under the Constitution) is designed as an economic right in order to create an incentive for the production and distribution of creative works.

Now, who the hell takes 10,000 photos of their pet because of the copyright granted on those pictures? The answer is basically no one — with the possible exception of a few professional photographers who sell images of animals. Most of us don’t need the 10k photos of our pets locked up under copyright for the rest of our lives, plus an additional 70 years.

Indeed, this tweet by the Copyright Office succinctly reveals the absolute insanity in American copyright law post-1978 when we moved from a copyright system of “formalities” (i.e., you need to register your works to get the copyright) to automatic copyright, where everything that meets the low bar of creativity gets an automatic copyright at the point of fixation. Even if you believe in the necessity of copyright for protecting professional creators, authors, artists, etc., the idea that you’re happy and excited and bragging over the fact that it covers the kind of artwork that needs no such incentive, is not intended for economic purposes, seems pretty messed up and really raises questions about the Copyright Office’s understanding of the underpinnings of copyright law in the first place.

Oh, and it gets worse. Someone on Twitter responded to the Copyright Office by asking “what is the legal position on retweeting this?” and the Copyright Office gave really bad advice:

In case you can’t see that, it says:

All government created work is part of the public domain, meaning you can freely use and reuse it. As cat people, we’d welcome it.

But… that’s wrong. Specifically, it’s wrong in that the photo in question is not a government created work. As the photo itself shows, the photo is from photographer Alena Ozerova, a Russian photographer, and the image is available to license via Shutterstock. Odd that a Copyright Office that is gleefully claiming that photos of cats are covered by copyright, then freely (and incorrectly) suggests that the image it’s tweeting is in the public domain, when that absolutely does not appear to be the case — and that’s not even getting into the question of whether or not retweeting copyright-protected material would be fair use or infringing.

Either way, the whole sequence of events seems like an abject lesson in how screwed up American copyright law is that even the US Copyright Office is both gleefully celebrating unnecessary copyrights that appear to go against the Constitution, and then claiming an actually copyright-protected image is in the public domain.

Update: Hilariously, many hours after giving the misleading advice regarding public domain materials, and after multiple people pointed out on Twitter that they had given an incorrect explanation, the Copyright Office then came back to clarify its earlier misleading tweet. Which brings up a neat follow up point: when even the Copyright Office can mislead the public about copyright in such a way that it has to come back and qualify its earlier incorrect tweet, how the hell are every day people expected to not accidentally infringe?

Why Is The Copyright Office Celebrating That All Our Cute Pet Photos Are Locked Up Under Copyright?

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