Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Internet Chess Piracy

Anyone who publishes material online will eventually find people copying it and representing it as their own. This is copyright infringement, plain and simple, but how to deal with it is not plain or simple at all on the internet. Having published a lot of chess analysis online and patrolled the net in search of chess links, I have not only suffered outright piracy of my material but also have had the misfortune of catching the thieves red handed. I say "misfortune" because it's annoying to find people representing your hard work and efforts as their own (when all they did was copy and paste) and it is absolutely frustrating and time-consuming to try to do anything about it. How can you resolve those feelings of anger toward these lazy pirates without getting more angry by wasting prescious hours of your life trying to get them to simply take it down? There has got to be a better way.

What can be done?

I'm not sure I have the final answer, but I've decided to start pursuing these cases. You see, when it first happened to me I was more than a little angry and wrote a nasty letter that achieved some results. When it happened to me a few more times, I was certainly angry (who would not be? they are lazy scum, plain and simple) but I was too busy to do anything about it. Now that it has happened again, though, I am suddenly curious about how far I can go to pursue it and make it stop. I'm not really angry--anger never motivates me very well (which may be why I'm not a more competitive chessplayer). Instead, I am curious, and that is motivating. I guess that is why I like to do opening analysis -- to satisfy my curiosity. In this case, I want to know: "What can be done?"

The first time I was ripped off was by the French site Mjae in an article on the Urusov Gambit. Here is one of the original passages from my writing that they stole:

"The Urusov has been popular among attacking players for nearly 150 years. Adopted by Keidanski, Schlechter, Tartakower, Caro, and Mieses, the opening claimed victims among the best defenders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Steinitz and Lasker. By 1924 there was enough interest in the line that a thematic tournament was organized in New York featuring Marshall, Torre, and Santasiere (see the Dimock Theme Tournament web site for more details). More recently, correspondence players have explored the opening's many forcing lines, and Yakov Estrin (World Correspondence Champion from 1975 to 1980) published several monographs that carried the analysis into the middlegame. Estrin's analysis revealed, however, a possible equalizing method for Black (with Panov's 4....d5) and suggested that some of the deepest lines might end in equality with best play. With that the opening fell into disfavor at the highest levels of master competition, and today it is mostly seen in club play, where it racks up quick scores against inexperienced or unprepared opponents."

Here is the same passage translated into French on the Mjae website:

"Urusov a été populaire parmi les joueurs d'attaque pendant presque 150 ans. Adopté par Keidanski, Schlechter, Tartakower, Caro et Mieses, l'ouverture a fait beaucoup de victimes parmi les meilleurs défenseurs de la fin du 19ème et début du 20ème siècle, y compris Steinitz et Lasker. A partir de 1924 il y avait assez d'intérêt pour cette ligne de jeu que des tournois thématiques ont été organisés. Plus récemment, les joueurs par correspondance ont exploré pas mal de lignes forçées de l'ouverture, et Yakov Estrin (champion du monde par correspondance de 1975 à 1980) a édité plusieurs monographies qui ont porté l'analyse jusque dans le milieu de jeu. L'analyse d'Estrin indique, cependant, une méthode égalisante possible pour les Noirs (avec le 4...d5 de Panov) et suggère que certaines lignes les plus pointues pourraient finir par donner l'égalité aux Noirs. C'est ainsi que le gambit Urusov est tombé en désuétude au haut niveau, et aujourd'hui on ne le voit la plupart du temps que dans des parties de club. Cependant, il reste très pédagogique et les attaques brutales qui peuvent en découler, les schémas de mat, les sacrifices de qualité, de pièces, voire de Dame, vous apporteront bien plus que la simple étude d'une ouverture."

Even if you do not know any French, you can use your excellent pattern-recognition skills from years of chess study to understand the exact duplication perpetrated here. In this case I wrote them a letter and they agreed to acknowledge me on their site. Though I had asked them at least to give me author's credit, they simply provided a link to my materials. That satisfied me (I am too busy for more), since anyone who does any looking through both of our sites will recognize their theft. But it did increase my natural-born American hostility toward the French, I must confess....

I have since figured out some better ways of addressing the issue than simply writing to the culprits -- though that has to be a first step. Now, however, I write to the culprits by email and also to their service providers. You see, service providers tend to be honest and have policies about infringing other peoples' copyrights. So you can generally use them as your muscle.

The question remains, though, how do you find out where the pirated material is actually hosted? Ah... There are ways. And you can simply use the UNIX "whois" command if you know programming. But a rather simple one for those of us who don't is to use the detective tools available from the appropriately titled "SamSpade.org" website.

In the first search line at their tools menu, you simply enter the URL of the offending page and it will tell you the host. Take, for example, my recent discovery that my links pages from my Urusov Gambit website had been completely pirated (bad coding and all) by the Atticus Chess Club website. I entered their info into Sam Spade and got my first clue where I should be directing my complaints.

To his credit, I must say that the Atticus webmaster responded quickly to my email message about the problem and if you visit their links page you will see the notice that it is "currently being updated" (which may mean that they are working on one of their own or simply trying to hide their theft as much as possible -- we'll see). But to make sure that he did take action I also sent a message to his service provider who did look into the issue and alerted me to the fact that the offending page was no longer in place.

Score one for the writers of original chess material.

Any other suggestions would be most welcome. And if I uncover any other useful resources in this regard I will be sure to let you know.


Patrick said...

As a law student who just took a Copyright Law final exam, I must admit that I have thought about the level of protection for published chess analysis.

I concluded that thin protection extends basically only to the "selection and arrangement" of variations and to the author's annotations. (Much like a Fodor's travel guide or history textbook-- I could change the wording, change the selection & arrangement and then publish with impunity using no other source material.)

Variations themselves are not copyrightable, even if you are the first person ever to think of (or publish) a queen sac on move 18 in the Ruy Lopez. Such a queen sac would be an /idea/, and protection would be limited to the particular expression of that idea.

Another perspective, which you don't mention, is that copyright law is intended in the Constitution to promote the progress of science, or the public storehouse of knowledge. If the the benefit to the public storehouse of knowledge outweighs the author's disincentive to create, this issue is often dispositive in a successful fair use defense. So it is perhaps not such a tragedy that French readers now have access to some fairly excellent Urusov gambit analysis.

Also, I noticed the lack of any copyright notice on your pages. This makes an "innocent infringer" defense a slam dunk. One line of text at the bottom would suffice.

I have to say that this is obviously not "legal advice", but just thinking aloud. Thanks for the blog.

Goran said...

Thank you Michael and Patrick for your good posts.

Michael Goeller said...

Partick --
Thanks for the note! These are all very interesting issues. Yes, I recognized the need for the copyright notice on the Kenilworth site -- there is one at the bottom of all my Urusov pages, but there was some question with the Kenilworth site whether to copyright it personally or for the club and I foolishly left it out. Now I will have to go back and insert it!

I know that games themselves cannot be copyrighted (most people see that as having been established in a case involving basketball scores). But I assume that original analysis is copyrighted to some extent. Perhaps only the particular wording? What you say about particular lines being a question is very interesting. You may very well be correct.

I also agree that making my analysis available to the French is a good thing and have thought of copying the materials on the Mjae site back onto mine for just that purpose.... ;-)

In the case of the Atticus copying, they had taken not only my links and their specific arrangement but also everything I had written about those links, including personal comments or ones clearly identified with the context in which they were written (such as "Anyone who plays the Urusov Gambit will probably like this site"). They even took my code, which may or may not be copyrighted (and frankly I wrote that code in my early days of web design so it really stinks and I wouldn't want to claim ownership), but it certainly makes the fact that they copied directly from my site more blatant!

Good luck with the law. I hope you write something on these issues in the future -- I have not seen anything about chess in particular and would like to read it. And don't worry: I won't copy from it for my site. :-)

Jens Madsen said...

As the editor of Chessville.com, which publishes a great deal of original chess material, I want to thank you for posting your thoughts on this very important topic. I think your approach of using the service providers to muscle the culprits is a good one. The bad thing is that for every infringement we spot, there is likely a handful that go unnoticed.


Patrick said...

You are right that only the wording (and "selection & arrangement") is protectible. Copyright law protects the _expression_ of ideas, not the underlying ideas themselves. In a case like chess notation, the idea of a queen sac on g7 is "merged" with the expression "Qxg7", so under the merger doctrine "Qxg7" should not be protectible by copyright. Text annotations are totally copyrightable. Even editorial markings like +- !? ? are protected to some extent because these are expressions of opinions rather than ideas.

I fought the lawyerly urge to cite case law and go into extreme (boring) depth in this comment. :)