In early June, about three weeks before Beyonce's latest album came out, one of her songs, a collaboration with the rapper Andre 3000, made its way to the open seas of the Internet. Twitter recently published a batch of data that sheds light on the leak and provides insight into how Twitter censors information on the Internet.
It began when a website called RapUp published a link to the song, "Party." Someone tweeted the link and lots of people retweeted it. From the perspective of Beyonce's record label, Columbia, this was not cool. So Columbia turned to a London-based contractor called Web Sheriff, which sent a takedown request to Twitter. It contained a list of over 100 of those copyright-infringing tweets and retweets. Twitter wrote back quickly: "We have removed the reported materials from the site."
Twitter has removed thousands of tweets from its site over the years, and last month, it published the more than 4,000 takedown requests that have floated into its inbox since 2009. Given the debates that have roiled the tech world in recent weeks, it's not hard to see why. Earlier in January, Wikipedia had blacked out its site in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the controversial anti-piracy legislation in Congress. Hundreds of other websites joined the protest, saying the legislation would lead to government censorship of the Internet.
Congress put the bills on hold, but the Internet censorship controversy continues, and Twitter executives are eager to reassure the public that they aren't against free speech. As they noted in a blog published along with the takedown requests, "We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can't."
Last week, we looked up the people who sent out these takedown requests, and found that Web Sheriff was responsible for about half of them. This week, we searched for the copyright-infringing Twitter accounts, thinking this would give a picture of the people who engage in "piracy."
We began by pulling up the offending accounts with the most followers, and guess who turned out to be one of the most followed copyright-infringing tweeters on the list? Big Boi, aka Antwan Andre Patton, aka Daddy Fat Sax, aka Sir Luscious Left Foot, aka the less flamboyant half of the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast, aka longtime creative and business partner of Andre 3000.
Twitter had removed his tweet, of course, but after digging around a little on various American and Russian search engines we found the original: "RT @RapUp: New Music: Beyonce f/ Andre 3000."
So Big Boi was basically pirating a song made by his rap comrade and a fellow artist. Did he mean to infringe on his rights, or to encourage people to steal from him? Probably not.
We were unable to reach Big Boi for this story, but we did get in touch with John Giacobbi, the head of Web Sheriff. He explained that the tweet shows why Twitter and other social networking sites pose such a huge challenge to copyright-holders.
"In any kind of leak scenario, Twitter becomes a very powerful tool," Giacobbi said. "To a certain extent it's human nature for people to share leaked material on Twitter, and to another extent it's people not thinking through the ramifications of their actions. Generally it's done for positive reasons -- saying, 'Check this out, it's very cool!' Maybe that's not so bad after the release, but before the release it's not so good."