Nefarious actors have long weaponized systems put in place to protect creators’ original work. When filing fake copyright takedowns, these parties have the power to claim, monetize, or remove content that they have no rights to. YouTubers, musicians, digital artists – they’re all quite familiar with content ID strikes, copyright infringement notices, and other similar bad faith takedowns of their work on internet platforms.
But writers, reporters, and journalists: Are you aware that this can happen to you too? One cryptocurrency muckraker learned this the hard way when fake DMCA takedown requests took down his entire body of work and put a spotlight on the failings of online copyright protection.
Dirty Bubble Media, a newsletter hosted on the writing platform Substack, has been covering the shadiest aspects of the crypto industry since the beginning of 2020. Under the pseudonym Mike Burgersburg, the newsletter’s author has been on top of some of this year’s biggest stories in the space.
For example, have you heard of Celsius, the crypto lender allegedly running as a Ponzi scheme which helped crash the entire cryptocurrency market this year? Burgersburg was diving into the inner workings of the company and sounding the alarm back in January. Around the time Celsius paused customer withdrawals, Burgersburg was also looking into another crypto lender called Voyager. Not long after, Voyager would suffer a fate similar to Celsius’.
Burgersburg had become a trusted source of information in the small-yet-growing crypto-skeptic circle…which is why it was odd when the online home for all his reporting was suddenly taken down by Substack on July 15.
“Publication Not Available,” read a notice on the Substack page when anyone tried to access DirtyBubbleMedia.substack.com. “The page you are attempting to access is unavailable.”
It seemed unusual for Substack to deplatform one of its own creators. The newsletter platform has generated controversy over the years due to its less stringent content moderation policies. For example, the company has gone to bat to defend writers on its platform accused of creating transphobic content.
“Just went to find one of @dirtybubblemed3’s blog posts to use in a citation and found that substack took down his research (“Flagged as TOS violation”),” tweeted Web3 Is Going Great creator Molly White on July 17. “Hopefully @SubstackInc restores it soon once they realize people are weaponizing their reporting flow.”
On Twitter, Burgersburg explained that Substack had taken down his blog due to “multiple spurious DMCA complaints.”
“People don’t think about copyright as a restriction on speech because it’s supposed to help creators,” said EFF’s Associate Director of Policy and Activism Katharine Trendacosta in a phone call with Mashable. “But, copyright is a monopoly right on expression that has been granted by law, and that makes it in conflict with free speech, and that makes the DMCA, which gives unprecedented ability for people to take things down without a court order, an incredibly effective tool for censorship.”
Trendacosta noted how these false takedown tactics have increased in frequency over the years, where even authoritarian regimes overseas have weaponized copyright to silence critics.
In a statement provided to Mashable on July 15, a Substack spokesperson confirmed that the company had “received multiple valid DMCA infringement notices regarding Dirty Bubble Media” and that it “notified the writer and explained our copyright dispute policy each time.” Substack said it had removed the Dirty Bubble Media content at the time due to its “repeat infringer policy.”
Mashable reached out to Burgersburg, who provided copies of three DMCA takedown requests that were sent to Substack and resulted in his reporting being taken down. Two were for unique articles and one was for an updated version of an article that a takedown was already filed on.
While every platform’s policies differ, Jonathan Bailer, copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte and author at the website Plagiarism Today, tells Mashable that he found it odd for the platform to completely take down his website in this particular case.
“If the case could be handled with a single DMCA notice and we aren’t talking about a sky high number of works, it really shouldn’t have tripped [their termination] policy,” Bailer said.
Burgersburg also confirmed that multiple DMCA takedowns were sent over a period of four months and Substack had attempted to reach him as early as April. However, he had not seen these early inquiries because he did not regularly check the email address he had used to signup for Substack.
Approximately five days after the Dirty Bubble Media account, Substack restored the account. However, a few of Burgersburg’s posts were still conspicuously absent. According to Burgersburg, Substack was giving the complainant 10 days to respond to the dispute.
Since Spring, a company called “Mevrex” filed three separate DMCA takedown requests claiming that Burgersburg plagiarized their original work on one of their online properties, UNFT News.
A DMCA takedown refers to the 1998 U.S. copyright law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which basically provides copyright holders with a way to remove material that they own from a web host or online platform. Mevrex went through the DMCA takedown service, DMCA.com, to file their takedown complaints. DMCA.com provides customers with a subscription service as low as $10 a month or a flat fee of $199 to file a DMCA takedown.
After receiving the third takedown notice from DMCA.com on behalf of “Mevrex,” Substack decided to remove Burgersburg’s newsletter and its archives from the internet.
One problem: The copyright claims were false. Burgersburg did not plagiarize UNFT News’ work. In fact, the opposite happened. UNFT News copy-and-pasted Burgersburg’s reporting verbatim. They then claimed it as their own by simply backdating the post on their website so it appeared on their website as being published before Burgersburg posted it.
DMCA.com did not reply to an inquiry from Mashable.
“It seems unlikely that the service [DMCA.com] knowingly filed a false notice (they were likely deceived too),” Bailer of Plagiarism Today said, noting the issues this brings for the filing company too. “Cases like this cause hosts to understandably mistrust your notices, which causes problems down the road.”
The Burgersburg articles that UNFT News is claiming as their own include “Who Spends $24 Million On An NFT? Meet Deepak Thapliyal, The CEO From Nowhere,” and “Heidi Klum Owns A Cryptopunk. How It Got To Her Wallet Is A Bit Odd.” Burgersburg originally posted these on his Substack newsletter in February. UNFT News claims they published these pieces first, under the byline “UNFT News.”
Burgersburg originally posted the piece on Deepak Thapliyal on February 14. UNFT News re-posted Burgersburg’s work on their own website under the UNFT News byline and simply backdated the post to February 12. They then issued a DMCA takedown request and submitted the post dates as proof Burgersburg was the plagiarist.
UNFT News repeated this process with the Heidi Klum NFT article which was backdated to Feb. 9. As Burgersburg pointed out, there’s one problem with that publishing date. The UNFT News domain name, unft.news, was not registered until Feb. 10, meaning UNFT News is claiming to have published that piece before their website even existed.
A Mashable investigation into these claims uncovered archived versions of the UNFT News website on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. UNFT News, which claims to be “a leading online magazine” operated by “4NFT Media, the largest operating NFT Media company,” did not appear to even launch until mid-March 2022. The earliest archived version of the website is from March 19. The archived page from this time period doesn’t show either of the pieces that Burgerberg actually authored.
In fact, looking at archives of the website throughout March 2022, there isn’t much crypto coverage on UNFT News at all. The majority of the UNFT News website in March 2022 included articles dating back to 2016 with titles such as “Top 10 Best Photo Hunt Of Ice Rugby,” “The Great Time For Enjoy City View On Mountain,” and “Outdoor Photo Shooting With Sexy And Beautiful.”
Mevrex, the company that claims to own UNFT News in the DMCA takedown requests, advertises itself online as “a media agency that offers services to more than 200 brands and businesses in over 30+ Countries.” The vast majority of mentions of Mevrex online consist of paid-for press releases and advertorials by the company itself, which says it was founded by a young entrepreneur named Lakshay Jain and is based out of India.
Articles like this one filled UNFT News in March 2022. But the articles they claimed Burgerburg took from them are nowhere to be found
Diving into UNFT News’ social media, it looks like the accounts have received artificially-inflated growth.
UNFT News’ Instagram page, @UNFT, first posted on March 29, 2022. With 244k followers, posts rarely receive more than single-digits worth of likes. Its Facebook Page, which was created 2 days prior, has around 13k followers and receives very little engagement as well. Its YouTube channel has over 280k subscribers, yet not a single uploaded public video appears on its profile page. The UNFT News Twitter account, @UNFT_News, seems to have been suspended sometime in April or May of this year. Archived versions of the Twitter profile appear to show that the account used to be known as @NFTNews and switched usernames sometime in April.
Attempts to reach Mevrex and UNFT News for comment were unsuccessful.
“Absent a lawsuit,” EFF’s Trendacosta explained, “there’s really no deterrence for sending a bad takedown.”
As for Mike Burgersburg and Dirty Bubble Media, Substack has still not restored two of the three posts Mevrex falsely claimed were plagiarized.