This Is CNN: Abusing Copyright Law To End Embarrassment

Published April 28, 2009

Tax Day this year was a great day for old-fashioned patriotism, but a bad day for television journalism—exemplified by CNN “reporter” Susan Roesgen. When hundreds of thousands of protestors raised their voices in opposition to profligate government spending and high taxes, Roesgen’s rude, hectoring interview of a father in Chicago holding his two-year-old son became an instant YouTube sensation. It also became an unbearable embarrassment to the self-proclaimed Most Trusted Name in News.

Citing copyright infringement, CNN convinced YouTube to remove the clip that exposed Roesgen as an unprofessional hack more interested in barking talking points at the protesters than impartially covering the event. The news giant also got YouTube to remove a longer clip made by a Web site called Founding Bloggers, which featured the original minute-and-a-half CNN “report” plus a few minutes of protesters giving Roesgen a piece of their minds.

Happily, both clips were sent to Internet purgatory for only about 24 hours, and they are now back up on YouTube—and scores of blogs—for all to see and evaluate. But the incident raises important questions about the concept of “fair use” and the frequent abuse of copyright law by big media players.

Like any media organization, musician, or film studio, CNN owns the content it produces, and no one should be able to steal that content and disseminate it for profit or free use by others. That is the bedrock of the legal structure that fights piracy of music, movies, and software.

But the doctrine of “fair use,” long ensconced in federal law, allows the rebroadcast or reprinting of brief excerpts of copyrighted material for the purposes of criticism, comment, and discussion. Without “fair use,” movie reviewers on television wouldn’t have any clips to show, Michael Moore wouldn’t have news footage to embed in his documentaries, and book critics couldn’t quote the works they review.

It is obvious that CNN demanded YouTube take down the clip because it was embarrassed at the justified ridicule that rained down on the network and Roesgen—who took a conveniently timed vacation right after the incident. If copyright was the real beef, why didn’t CNN go after its cable news competitors when they showed the same clip scores of times on their networks?

Ben Sheffner, a former journalist who is now a high-powered copyright attorney, noted on his Copyrights & Campaigns blog a further irony: CNN’s hip, young “Internet reporter” Abbi Tatton routinely incorporates YouTube clips in her pieces.

“Do you think CNN negotiates licenses for each one?” Sheffner asked. “Of course not. It relies on the fair use doctrine, as do all news organizations.”

Founding Bloggers is not a traditional “news organization” but a tiny blog, so it was an easy target for CNN’s attack. But it still managed to fight back and win.

This victory over the abuse of copyright law should have been unnecessary. A news organization that takes First Amendment protections and “fair use” for granted in its own case should know better than to try to deny them to others.

CNN further damaged its declining reputation with its cynical, bullying behavior both during the Tea Party and afterward. Such actions blur the distinction between legal activities and piracy, and thus undermine real efforts to protect intellectual property.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is a research fellow for The Heartland Institute in Chicago and managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.