A thorny issue: transcripts and intellectual property

The story so far

Forty-two§ days ago, I wibbled about the upcoming Towel Day, in a post that featured a video interview of Richard Dawkins talking about Douglas Adams — and the transcript I’d (laboriously) made of it. Goldie left a comment that set me on a path investigating machine transcription. My first foray was a bit of a flop (firstborns are often throwaways, eh, Bish?), but the second was a success.

But then I hit what seemed to be a roadblock. The tool I’d been using (Sonix) offers transcription directly from YouTube videos. However, when entering the link to a video, it put up a message that said: ‘Please make sure that you have permission from the copyright owner — which made me stop and think.

For many years now, I’ve tried to ensure that any imagery that I use on my blog is in the public domain, or that I have permission to use it; I’ve always sought to respect copyright. But it hadn’t occurred to me, until now, that transcription could be infringing copyright.

So, I did a little digging. (Disclaimer: IANAL!)

In many countries, when a person creates an original work that is fixed in a physical medium, they automatically own copyright to the work. As the copyright owner, they have the exclusive right to use the work. Most of the time, only the copyright owner can say whether someone else has permissions to use the work.

YouTube Help on Copyright

YouTube is owned by Alphabet (Google), and based in the US. Sonix is also US-based. I’m in the UK, which has different laws. Though the Internet spans the world, the various regional laws haven’t really gotten up to speed on that reality; legislation always lags behind technology. ‘Fair use‘ (US) and ‘Fair dealing‘ (UK) would seem to me to be inapplicable, mainly because it’s necessary to transcribe the entirety of the work in question.

The accessibility argument: helping disabled people

I’m not just thinking of myself, here; it seems to me that this legal barrier to content accessibility clearly impacts all deaf people, unfairly denying them access to it.

The Digital Media Law Project threw me a few bones:

Fair use will not permit you to merely copy another’s work and profit from it, but when your use contributes to society by continuing the public discourse or creating a new work in the process, fair use may protect you.


A use that transforms the original work in some way is more likely to be a fair use;
A non-profit use is more likely to be considered a fair use than a for-profit use


Add something new or beneficial (don’t just copy it — improve it!)

Digital Media Law Project

… but they also had a couple of brickbats:

A shorter excerpt is more likely to be a fair use than a long one; and
A use that cannot act as a replacement for the original work is more likely to be a fair use than one that can serve as a replacement.

Digital Media Law Project

The gov.uk website suggests that ‘helping disabled people’ can constitute an exception to copyright. In the case of transcriptions, making content accessible to those who are deaf would seem to be an obvious contribution to society.

The UK government’s ‘helping disabled people’ exceptions as described by the Intellectual Property Office appear, at first glance, to be appropriate. However, one of the restrictions on when these exceptions can be relied upon is ‘accessible copies cannot be made, communicated, made available, distributed or lent to a person that is not a disabled person under these exceptions‘ — and that alone would prohibit creating a transcription and then publishing it on a blog, as that would make it available to those who aren’t deaf.

Hoping that they’d say something like “this is an issue that we’re aware of and there is [insert name of campaign to change the law here] who you could approach for assistance,” I contacted the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and the National Deaf Children’s Society. They came back to me: but all they were able to really do was confirm that the act of transcribing was not itself a problem, the issue was the act of publishing the words.

The RNID does have a page listing various campaigns, though none of them address this particular issue. At the foot of that page, though, there is a link to the ‘APPG’:

I might drop these guys a link to this post and see what they say.

A loophole?

YouTube enables the publisher to forbid embedding of the content in another site. Can it be argued that by publishing a video without choosing that option, the publisher grants implicit licence to copy the work? I consulted YouTube’s advice on the subject, but couldn’t find an answer to that — and, in any case, there’s a clear Disclaimer: The information presented here is not legal advice. We give it for informational purposes. If you need legal advice, you should get in touch with an attorney. Yeah, good luck with that, me.

Seeking permission is a fruitless endeavour

As I read it, the law is pretty clear: I have to gain permission from the copyright holder each and every time I (or indeed you) want to publish a transcript of another’s content. This is fraught with difficulty: it’s almost impossible to determine from whom one needs that permission; and even when one can determine that, there’s rarely a way of making contact to ask the question.

As an example, Michael Stevens (AKA ‘Vsauce‘) recently published a video on YouTube entitled ‘The Future of Reasoning‘. I found it fascinating, and immediately thought of publishing it on my blog — along with a transcription, naturally. But Michael isn’t easy to contact. He offers his Twitter handle (@tweetsauce); I tweeted him, but no response (unsurprising, as he has over 1.2 million Twitter followers). I sent an email to the address he offers ‘for business enquiries’ (with some trepidation, as it felt like an abuse of trust given that my enquiry isn’t a business proposition). So far, no response to that, either.

What’s crystal clear is that the only winners here are the intellectual property lawyers.

Following Alice into the rabbit hole to Wonderland

It seems to me that the only recourse I have is to declare the law an ass that needs to wake up to current technological reality, flout it, and justify my actions (to myself, at least) on the grounds that accessibility needs outweigh the need to respect copyright — especially as my intent is to assist public discourse, and I’m certainly not seeking to profit from my efforts. I can’t believe that anyone would really object; after all, I’m helping to get their words ‘out there’.

And it’s not as though my teeny tiny blog audience (that’s you, by the way, if you’re still reading this) will have any impact, in any event.


§ Actually, it was 39 days ago today; I plead poetic license. Heads up: Towel Day is on Tuesday!

‡ I’ve since tried a transcript from a YouTube video again using Sonix; and, that time, I wasn’t presented with a warning to get the copyright holder’s permission. Strange. I got in touch with Sonix, and they’ve confirmed that although they do make a copy of the video on their system, this is not actually published anywhere — and so, I believe, there’s no copyright issue there. They do offer a link to the copy (and the associated transcript); but if you don’t publish that link, search engine crawlers shouldn’t be able to find it.

Header image adapted from
shallow focus photo of man writing on printing paper
by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Communication, Computers and Internet, Core thought, Education, Ludditis, Phlyarology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to A thorny issue: transcripts and intellectual property

  1. Herb says:

    Interesting legal question. There’s a lot to the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. leavergirl says:

    I thought you can copy all you want as long as it’s not for profit?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom says:

    It’s all very confusing. If I use an image that isn’t mine, I put a link to where the image was from, with as much information I can find. To me, that seems fair use, and credit is given where it’s due. But it’s all in a very cloudy grey area at the bottom of a winding rabbit hole…

    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      I agree that copyright is very much a grey area; one that I personally think is abused in certain cases by those who hold it (or think they do… I’m thinking of one day at Santa Monica Pier when I raised my camera to take a photograph and I was told in no uncertain terms that that was forbidden because “everything you see here is copyright”… what, that tree over there is ‘copyright’? How about the sky? Or me?).

      Digital media has made it even more murky, by making it relatively easy — and cheap — to copy material. And society’s legal systems are playing catch-up, as they always do. *points at legal professionals who seem unable to ditch the habit of wearing ludicrous wigs*

      Nevertheless, I do my best to respect it as much as I possibly can simply on the basis of the Golden Rule (‘do as you would be done by’). I wouldn’t want anyone to steal something I’d laboured hard making, and pass it off as their own work.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great. Once you get sued, I will go down with you as the mastermind because I gave you that idea. LOL

    But, like Tom, I thought you give full credit by saying where it’s from and that it’s not yours. However, I also know that you can’t always just use stuff wherever… Muddy waters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      Yep, Goldie, it’s all your fault, and I’m gonna take you down with me if I go! Muhahaha….

      Very muddy, indeed. Just saying “it’s not mine” and pointing to where you got it is actually breaking the law. You’re supposed to request the copyright holder’s permission each and every time you use another’s work. In this technological era, that’s more that just a tad anachronistic, or even, dare I say, phlyarologistic. But it’s why I always try to ensure that content I use is in the public domain, or has a Creative Commons licence, or else I get it from sites like Unsplash, whose contributors have given their permission in advance for it to be used.

      Now, ask me about my avatar… ;)

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Gray Dawster says:

    I guess the only way to publish another person’s content is to make it clear who the copyright holder is and that using their content is for non profitable means, not that the copyright holder would even know about the use of their work, but at least it shows that one cares.

    I mean plagiarism is such a worrying fact, and stops creativity in its tracks for many writers.

    Blogging was brilliant when it started, hey, yes I know there’s still thousands of bloggers out there but so many have left, stopped offering their own works for fear of people snatching and republishing under a different author.


    It’s nice when someone adds a script or blog that someone else wrote, that’s the plus side, but the negative flip side just ruins it, unfortunately.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your post, and there’s definitely a minefield to walk through to keeping things legal.

    Anyway, happy Monday.


    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Hi, Gray (‘Andro’?), and welcome to ‘Wibble’.

      I guess the only way to publish another person’s content is to make it clear who the copyright holder is and that using their content is for non profitable means, not that the copyright holder would even know about the use of their work, but at least it shows that one cares.

      There are two issues here: (1) Identifying who is actually the copyright holder (something that is itself fraught with difficulty) and (2) The law, as it stands, forbids copying another’s work without their permission. It’s not enough to say “I’m not making a profit from this”: that’s no defence.

      Taken together, these two simply highlight that the law, as it stands, isn’t fit for purpose.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed my post, and thank you very much for saying so!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gray Dawster says:

        I agree, the world of copyright law is indeed a minefield, not only for those that write, or produce in other genres, art, creativity in, and all things, but it is ridiculously pathetic in keeping one’s work safe and intact.

        I think the only form of proof is that whatever the original work was produced on, for example, computer or laptop, tablet or phone, there is a definite time stamp of that work, a footprint if you will to prove the very first entry.

        Everything after that footprint becomes an untruth, so in showing that proof and being able to prove ownership / copyright should be enough evidence, but hey, with technology as it is these days there’s always some twist that shakes the theory, so who knows!?

        Thank you for your reply, oh, and Andro was / is still my very first username here in WordPress, it is Gray Dawster to some, but Andro sort of stuck so there you have it, the mystery solved 🤔😁 lol

        Keep Safe.


        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Vsauce on ‘The Future of Reasoning’ | Wibble

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