Last night, robots shut down the live broadcast of one of science fiction's most prestigious award ceremonies. No, you're not reading a science fiction story. In the middle of the annual Hugo Awards event at Worldcon, which thousands of people tuned into via video streaming service UStream, the feed cut off — just as Neil Gaiman was giving an acceptance speech for his Doctor Who script, "The Doctor's Wife." Where Gaiman's face had been were the words, "Worldcon banned due to copyright infringement." What the hell?
Jumping onto Twitter, people who had been watching the livestream began asking what was going on. How could an award ceremony have anything to do with copyright infringement?
And then it began to dawn on people what happened. Gaiman had just gotten an award for hisDoctor Who script. Before he took the stage, the Hugo Awards showed clips from his winning episode, along with clips from some other Doctor Who episodes that had been nominated, as well as a Community episode.
This was, of course, absurd. First of all, the clips had been provided by the studios to be shown during the award ceremony. The Hugo Awards had explicit permission to broadcast them. But even if they hadn't, it is absolutely fair use to broadcast clips of copyrighted material during an award ceremony. Unfortunately, the digital restriction management (DRM) robots on UStream had not been programmed with these basic contours of copyright law.
And then, it got worse. Amid more cries of dismay on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere, the official Worldcon Twitter announced:
And with that, the broadcast was officially cut off. Dumb robots, programmed to kill any broadcast containing copyrighted material, had destroyed the only live broadcast of the Hugo Awards. Sure, we could read what was happening on Twitter, or get the official winner announcement on the Hugo website, but that is hardly the same. We wanted to see our heroes and friends on that stage, and share the event with them. In the world of science fiction writing, the Hugo Awards are kind of like the Academy Awards. Careers are made; people get dressed up and give speeches; and celebrities rub shoulders with (admittedly geeky) paparazzi.
You want to see and hear it if you can.
But UStream's incorrectly programmed copyright enforcement squad had destroyed our only accesss. It was like a Cory Doctorow story crossed with RoboCop 2, with DRM robots going crazy and shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of perfectly innocent broadcasts.
And who did we have recourse to? We couldn't file a legal complaint in time to see io9's Charlie Jane Anders accept the Hugo for best novelette. And UStream was completely unresponsive. As of today, September 3,people who posted querieson UStream's sitehave yet to be answered.
The point is, our ability to broadcast was entirely dependent on poorly-programmed bots. And once those bots had made their incorrect decision, there was absolutely nothing we could do to restart the signal, as it were. In case anyone still believes that copyright rules can't stop free speech or snuff out a community, the automated censorship of the Hugo Awards is a case in point.
Robots killed our legitimate broadcast. Welcome to the present.