An association of computer and communication companies, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, on Wednesday accused several professional sports leagues, book publishers and other media companies of misleading and threatening consumers with overstated copyright warnings.
In a complaint to the US' Federal Trade Commission, the group, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said that the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NBC and Universal Studios, DreamWorks, Harcourt and Penguin Group display copyright warnings that are a "systematic misrepresentation of consumers' rights to use legally acquired content."
The complaint alleges that the warnings may intimidate consumers from making legal use of copyrighted material, like photocopying a page from a book to use in class.
"It is an attempt to convince Americans that they don't have rights that they do in fact have," said Ed Black, the association's president and chief executive. "This is part of the larger context of what should be and what are proper rules for copyright in an Internet age."
The complaint asks the Federal Trade Commission to take remedial actions against content owners, like ordering them to provide a more accurate copyright warning, and to assist with efforts to educate the public on their rights.
Black said that the companies named in the complaint are not the only offenders but are perhaps the worst.
Julie Cohen, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center who specializes in copyright law, said the fair use doctrine of copyright law establishes a broad standard for how consumers can use copyrighted content, including for purposes of criticism and commentary.
"What fair use is designed to do is create some breathing room," Cohen said.
She said fair use could, for example, involve compiling and analyzing copyrighted visual images to create a visual search engine, transferring a song from a CD to an MP3 player or compiling film clips to create a multimedia presentation for a school assignment.
An example of how the copyright debate is being played out on the Internet can be seen in the lawsuit that Viacom filed against Google this March. In the suit, Viacom accuses the video-sharing Web site YouTube, which Google owns, of "massive copyright infringement." YouTube has said that it follows federal copyright law and complies with content owners' requests to remove unauthorized content.
Louis Solomon, a partner at the Proskauer Rose law firm in New York, is representing several companies that have joined Viacom in the suit. He said the announcement on Wednesday was nothing more than an effort by Google to deflect attention from copyright infringement on "hundreds of thousands" of video clips on sites like YouTube.