Last week, we wrote about one of the biggest, glaring flaws in the Copyright Office’s long awaited report on the DMCA 512’s safe harbors was its refusal to recognize how frequently it’s abused to take down legitimate works. As if on cue, over the weekend, the NY Times has quite the story about a feud in (I kid you not), wolf-kink erotica fan fiction, that demonstrates how the DMCA is regularly abused to punish and silence people for reasons that have nothing to do with copyright.
The full NY Times article is worth reading, describing a still ongoing legal fight between two fanfic authors who wrote stories building on some apparently common tropes in the wolf-erotica fiction genre. One author sued another, but, as the article notes, all of the supposedly “copied” elements are common throughout the wider genre:
Then, in 2018, Ms. Cain heard about an up-and-coming fantasy writer with the pen name Zoey Ellis, who had published an erotic fantasy series with a premise that sounded awfully familiar. It featured an Alpha and Omega couple, and lots of lupine sex. The more Ms. Cain learned about “Myth of Omega” and its first installment, “Crave to Conquer,” the more outraged she became. In both books, Alpha men are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage. In both books, the women try and fail to suppress their pheromones and give in to the urge to mate. In both books, the couples sniff, purr and growl; nest in den-like enclosures; neck-bite to leave “claim” marks; and experience something called “knotting,” involving a peculiar feature of the wolf phallus.
It’s hard to imagine that two writers could independently create such bizarrely specific fantasy scenarios. As it turns out, neither of them did. Both writers built their plots with common elements from a booming, fan-generated body of literature called the Omegaverse.
As the article goes on to note, this whole “Omegaverse” concept spun out of fanfiction based on the TV show “Supernatural.” And then a bunch of common tropes emerged:
Some Omegaverse stories involve lycanthropes (werewolves), vampires, shape-shifters, dragons, space pirates, others feature regular humans. But virtually all Omegaverse couples engage in wolflike behavior. Alphas “rut” and Omegas go through heat cycles, releasing pheromones that drive Alphas into a lusty frenzy. One particular physiological quirk that’s ubiquitous in Omegaverse stories, called knotting, comes from a real feature of wolves’ penises, which swell during intercourse, causing the mating pair to remain physically bound to increase the chance of insemination.
Normally, in copyright law, this should mean that there is no infringement. Either you have the idea/expression dichotomy come into play (the same idea expressed differently is not infringing as the idea itself cannot be covered by copyright) or there’s the concept of scenes a faire, in which a story in a particular genre needs those features to be a part of that genre.
However, even so, the DMCA has been weaponized here:
Ms. Cain urged Blushing Books to do something. The publisher sent copyright violation notices to more than half a dozen online retailers, alleging that Ms. Ellis’s story was “a copy” with scenes that were “almost identical to Addison Cain’s book.” Most of the outlets, including Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Apple, removed Ms. Ellis’s work immediately.
See that? Merely by claiming infringement using the DMCA’s 512 notice-and-takedown provisions, one author was able to literally delete a bunch of books from most major book stores. Doesn’t that seem like a problem? The Copyright Office barely acknowledges it. But here it’s turned into a massive fight.
In late April 2018, Ms. Ellis got an email from a reader who had ordered one of her books from Barnes & Noble, then learned that it wasn’t available anymore. She soon discovered that all of her Omegaverse books had disappeared from major stores, all because of a claim of copyright infringement from Ms. Cain and her publisher. Ms. Ellis found it bewildering.
“I couldn’t see how a story I had written using recognized tropes from a shared universe, to tell a story that was quite different than anything else out there commercially, could be targeted in that way,” Ms. Ellis said. “There are moments and scenarios that seem almost identical, but it’s a trope that can be found in hundreds of stories.”
While Ellis did file a counternotice, the Times says that online stores were incredibly slow to put the books back (some took months).
A lawyer for Ms. Ellis and Quill filed counter-notices to websites that had removed her books. Some took weeks to restore the titles; others took months. There was no way to recover the lost sales. “As a new author, I was building momentum, and that momentum was lost,” Ms. Ellis said. And she worried that the “plagiarist” label would permanently mar her reputation.
The author, Ellis, eventually sued over the takedown notice, claiming it was improper (and also that it was defamatory — which, seems like a SLAPP suit on its own, unfortunately). However, the author accusing Ellis of infringement seems pretty big into SLAPPing as well:
Two years later, Ms. Cain and her publisher filed D.M.C.A. takedown requests against Ms. Ellis’s first two “Myth of Omega” books. Ms. Cain also asked her publisher to file an infringement notice against an Ellis novel that hadn’t even been released yet. “Book three needs to come down too. I don’t want her to make any more money off this series,” Ms. Cain wrote to Blushing Books in April, according to a court filing.
That’s… not how any of this works. The NY Times says that Cain’s publisher caved in and admitted there was no infringement and apparently paid up to settle with Ellis, but Cain has kept the case going. She should lose. By the way, if you want to dig into the details of the actual lawsuit, you can find the docket here. The NY Times does not appear to link to it.
But, as the article makes very, very clear, the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process has been weaponised repeatedly. If it’s so obvious that it’s happening in such a niche area as “wolf-kink erotica fan fiction,” you know it’s happening in many other places as well. It seems ridiculous that the Copyright Office felt it wasn’t worth paying any attention to, and assuming that the only problems with DMCA 512 was that it didn’t take down enough content fast enough.