Reddit’s Unenforceable “No Copyrighted Material” Rule

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Following an extended period of controversy, Reddit has just rolled out a list of rules for the site. One of those rules bans the posting of illegal content such as copyrighted material. While the posting of such content has never been explicitly permitted, it's going to prove impossible to stop moving forward.

reddit-alienMany sites go through periods of turmoil and Reddit is no exception. The past several weeks have seen the site and its management team battered by controversy.

The job of putting things back together has now fallen to Steve Huffman, the guy who co-founded Reddit in 2005. Following a six year absence, Huffman returned last week as chief executive and immediately embarked on a mission to tidy up the site and win back the favor of the masses.

Last evening posting under his Reddit handle ‘Spez’, Huffman laid out a fresh set of guidelines for users of the site. While there is bound to be some dissent, few will argue with the rule that “anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people” should be banned alongside “sexually suggestive content featuring minors.”

However, the interesting inclusion of banning anything illegal, and the specific mentioning of copyright material, is likely to generate more debate.


While not mentioned at all in the site’s rules, previous Reddit user agreements have included clauses that require users not to post copyrighted material. The latest from Jan 2015 notes that users may not “infringe any person or entity’s intellectual property or any other proprietary rights.” It also highlights what will happen in response to a valid DMCA-style copyright complaint from a third party.

So if we presume that yesterday’s announcement is a signal that Reddit is today more serious about its ‘new’ rules than it’s ever been, how will the “no copyrighted material rule” affect the site? Well, to be frank, at this point that’s anyone’s guess. The start, beginning and end of the rule is shown in the image above and no further elaboration has been offered. That is somewhat problematic.

While linking to Hollywood movies and TV shows in /r/fullmoviesonyoutube is often a questionable activity, it’s clear that users of the /r/illegaltorrents sub have little idea whether they can continue or not. Whatever the outcome, Reddit has more immediate problems in plain view.

Currently Reddit’s second most popular sub, /r/pics links to many thousands of pictures hosted on sites such as Imgur which have been legitimately uploaded by their copyright owners. However, countless others might be infringing, either by virtue of being reuploaded by a third party without permission or simply due to the fact that they’re someone else’s images culled from licensed sources elsewhere.

Of course, if everyone takes the rule absolutely literally that poses huge problems for the site, since almost the entire point of Reddit is to point people to (often copyrighted) content hosted elsewhere. Luckily, users of the site can link to copyrighted content quite legally, by taking full advantage of their Fair Use rights in the areas of news reporting, commentary, criticism and parody etc.

So, the Reddit “no copyrighted content rule” doesn’t actually mean that users can’t link to copyrighted content, it just means that in some circumstances linking to copyrighted content is disallowed. And herein lies the problem.

Each instance of linking to copyrighted content, whether that’s an image, piece of audio or video, is open to debate whether such linking is allowed under the law. This will make it not only incredibly time-consuming for moderators to enforce this “no copyrighted content” rule, but in some cases almost impossible.

On a torrent site striving to be legal, for example, the question of whether a leaked copy of the latest Jurassic Park movie is legal is a relatively easy one to answer. However, given the incredibly broad range of subject matter and debate possibilities on Reddit, the same scenario is entirely more complex.

In reality, the only people who know whether content is infringing or not are the copyright holders themselves and they are catered for comprehensively under Reddit’s existing user agreement. Like any other user-generated content site, Reddit allows copyright holders to spot an infringement and file a complaint to have that content removed. That’s the DMCA in action and while rightsholders say it’s cumbersome, it does the job it was supposed to do.

Finally, some people will quite rightly argue that the whole point of having a rule is so it can be enforced. But if that’s the case and Reddit is in no position to sensibly enforce its “no copyrighted material” rule, what exactly is its point?

Well, it sets out ground-rules, and it helps Reddit to portray a more responsible image to potential advertisers and other corporate allies. They will appreciate the public signal being sent and hope that something positive comes from it, even if the end result is not very different from what we already have today.


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