The shocking clip was recorded by videographer Adam Ward on August 26, 2015, in which he and Parker were killed by a disgruntled ex-colleague while working near Roanoke. Live broadcast, the terrifying footage quickly went viral, and was watched millions of times on Facebook, YouTube and other sites. Six years later, it still gets tens of thousands of views, despite Parker’s father’s efforts to remove the clips from the Internet.
Now, Andy Parker has turned the killing clip into a non-fungible code, or NFT, in a complex and potentially futile attempt to claim ownership of the videos, a tactic of using copyright to coerce big tech companies. Parker said, “This is peace, Mary,” The act of despair.
While Facebook and YouTube say they have removed thousands of clips of the killings, dozens remain on the platforms. Over the years, Parker has deployed a range of strategies to wipe out the extremists, recruiting a fleet of allies to research and report videos and file complaints with federal regulators. Last month, he launched a campaign in Congress that focused in part on holding social media companies to account for the spread of harmful content on their sites.
Under current law, platforms are largely protected from liability for the content of their users’ posts. But platforms may still be subject to copyright claims if they don’t remove the offending content, and experts say a lawsuit alleging the video is copyrighted could provide Parker with a more effective path to removing it.
“For victims of the horrific images being circulated on the Internet in general, copyright unfortunately and inappropriately ends up being an effective tool,” said Adam Massey, partner at CA Goldberg, a New York law firm that advises Parker.
Families of shooting victims have often relied on copyright law for results. Lenny Posner, whose son was killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, has filed hundreds of copyright suits to have photos of his son removed from websites spreading conspiracy theories about the fatal shooting. Posner said copyright is a more effective tool than relying on platform policies against hoaxes, for example, which are often vague and disproportionate.
Massey said copyright has also been a useful tool for victims of non-consensual pornography, as simply threatening legal action can be more effective than petitioning platforms. “In the early days, there were people, mostly women, having to register their nudes copyright with the government to try to get them off the websites,” he said. “Part of the logic is that if you have the copyright, you can advocate more effectively for platforms to have it removed.”
Parker does not own the copyright to the clip of his daughter’s death that was broadcast on CBS affiliate WDBJ in 2015. But in December, he created the video’s NFT on Rarible, a marketplace that deals in cryptocurrency, in an attempt to claim copyright ownership of the clip. He hopes this will give him legal status to sue social media companies for removing the videos from circulation.
NFTs are unique pieces of digital content that are registered as assets using the blockchain, the same technology that powers cryptocurrency. Over the past year, the popularity of NFT has mushroomed as people have rushed to buy, sell and trade NFT collectibles created from fine art, raw memes and even an animated version of a hat worn by Melania Trump.
Under current laws, copyright holders can exclusively copy, adapt or display their original work, unless they give permission to a third party to do so. Intellectual property lawyers said the concepts should apply to NFTs.
But the rush to convert the vast range of freely circulated online content to NFTs has exposed property disputes. The blockchain keeps a permanent record of every transaction on a decentralized server, which in theory makes it easier to keep track of ownership. Amid the blitzkrieg campaign are situations such as Parker’s, where an NFT holder has created a duplicate certified copy of a piece of content, leaving two of the alleged owners of the same media.
Experts say case law relating to NFT ownership is still in the early stages of development and has already sparked a number of copyright disputes. In one case, a 12-year-old programmer sold his NFT set of pixelated images of whales called “Exotic Whales” for $300,000. But according to Fortune, users accused the project of copying a separate image that the programmer didn’t seem to have to create its own NFT. The boy’s father told BBC News he was “100 percent sure” that his son had not violated copyright law and asked lawyers to “scrutinize” the project.
Gray Television, the parent company of WDBJ, owns the copyright to the original footage and has refused to hand it over. Kevin Lateck, Gray TV’s chief legal officer, asserts that the footage does not depict the killing of Alison Parker because “the video does not show the attacker or the shooting during the horrific incident.”
In a statement, Lateck said the company had “repeatedly offered to provide Mr. Parker with an additional copyright license” to invite social media companies to remove WDBJ footage “if it is used inappropriately”.
This includes the right to act as their agent with the HONR Network, a non-profit organization created by Pozner to help people targeted by online harassment and hate. “By doing so, we have enabled the HONR network to flag the video for removal from platforms such as YouTube and Facebook,” Lattik said.
Without owning the footage, Parker and his legal advisors say, a license to use is of little use when it comes to forcing social media companies to remove the clips. By relying on licensing as his legal basis for creating the NFT for the copyrighted clip of WDBJ, Parker hopes to bypass the standoff with Gray Television and once again pursue his case directly with social media platforms.
Even if the Parker maneuver worked, removing the copyrighted footage would only be half the answer. The NFT does not cover a separate clip from the shooting recorded by shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan, a former WDBJ reporter who was fired in 2013. Some platforms, such as YouTube, have been stricter in removing Flanagan footage, according to the platform’s policy on video bans. of violent events when photographed by the perpetrator.
“We remain committed to removing violent footage filmed by Alison Parker’s killer, and strictly enforce our policies using a combination of machine learning technology and human review,” YouTube spokesperson Jack Malone said in a statement.
According to YouTube’s policies, the platform may prevent younger users from viewing a violent video instead of removing the post if it includes “sufficient” educational context, as in a news report, Malone said.
Facebook bans any videos depicting shootings from any angle, without exception, according to Gene Readings, a spokesperson for parent company Meta. “We have removed thousands of videos depicting this tragedy since 2015, and continue to proactively remove more,” Readings said in a statement, adding that Facebook encourages continued reporting of such content.
But years later, videos uploaded in the days immediately after filming remained on the Internet. A review by The Washington Post found nearly 20 Facebook posts that contained a transcript of the shooting, including some of the gunman’s footage.
While some only had a few hundred views, others had tens of thousands, including one that had over 115,000 views and more than 1,000 likes left since August 2015. Facebook removed all videos after they were flagged by The Post.
To this day, Parker has not seen any of the footage. He says, “I can’t.”
Aderson Francois, the Georgetown University law professor who represented Parker in his complaints to the Federal Trade Commission against Facebook and YouTube, described it as “indescribably outrageous” not only for reporting on the videos one by one but also for reading and listening to “conspiracy theories that People are ‘about shooting, including that it was rigged or that it was part of a campaign to seize people’s weapons.
“When you watch them, you have to walk away after a while,” Francois said. “After a while, I have nightmares, sleepless nights, and flashbacks.”
Parker did not inform Gray Television of his intent to NFT making the footage before it was minted. Asked for comment on Parker’s NFT, Latek said, “Although we have provided use licenses to third parties, these use licenses never and never allow them to convert our content to NFTs.”
Rarible, the marketplace where NFT was created, temporarily blocked access to Parker’s token on Tuesday after this story was published. By Wednesday, access had been restored.
Nader did not mention why NFT was banned. According to its website, Rarible may block or obscure the NFT “when a digital asset violates copyright laws, regulations, or community guidelines to which Rarible complies.” The company will immediately remove content that may infringe copyright, according to its website.
Moish Peltz, an intellectual property attorney specializing in blockchain, crypto and NFTs, said: Digital codes can be unique tests of how copyright principles apply in extenuating circumstances.
“We’re not rewriting copyright law here, but I think NFTs create a new context where there are no legal decisions about how to apply them in certain cases,” Peltz said, adding that “some of the evolving cases” raise “some interesting questions.”
Parker hopes his situation is one of those severe cases. Amid the controversy, his relationship with Gray Television deteriorated, and the company hired a communications company, Breakwater Strategy, to handle matters relating to Parker.
In a statement sent to The Post by a Breakwater Strategy representative, Lateck accused Parker of making false statements about the company and of leaving “threatening and harassing messages via voicemail to Gray Television employees at all levels.”
Parker acknowledges that his NFT strategy puts him in “uncharted waters”. But he said, “Instead of common copyright, that’s the only thing we can do.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned the name of the nonprofit organization created by Lenny Pozner. It’s HONR Network.