Foolish actors have long weaponized systems put in place to protect their creators’ original works. By submitting fake copyright takedowns, these parties have the power to claim, monetize, or remove content to which they do not have rights. YouTubers, musicians, digital artists—they’re all familiar with Content ID strikes, copyright notices, and other similar bad faith removals of their work on Internet platforms.
But writers, journalists and journalists: Are you aware that this can happen to you too? One cryptocurrency muckraker learned this the hard way when fake DMCA requests took down his entire work and shined a spotlight on the failings of online copyright protection.
Dirty Bubble Media, a newsletter 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 the year’s biggest stories in the space.
For example, have you heard about Celsius, the crypto lender that allegedly runs like a Ponzi scheme that helped crash the entire cryptocurrency market this year? Burgersburg was dive in the inner workings of the company and sound the alarm back in January. Around the time Celsius stopped customer withdrawals, Burgersburg was also investigating 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 but growing crypto-skeptic circle…which is why it was strange when the online home for all his reporting was suddenly taken down by Substack on July 15.
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“Publication Not Available,” read a message on the Substack site when someone tried to access DirtyBubbleMedia.substack.com. “The page you are trying to access is unavailable.”
It seemed unusual for Substack to deplatform one of its own creators. The newsletter platform has caused controversy over the years due to its less strict content moderation guidelines. For example, the company has gone to great lengths to defend writers on its platform who are accused of creating transphobic contents.
“Just went to find one of @dirtybubblemed3’s blog posts to use in a citation and found that substack took down his research (“Flag as TOS Violation”),” tweeted Web3 Is Going Great creator Molly White on July 17th. “Hopefully @SubstackInc restores it soon when they realize people are weaponizing their reporting flow.”
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On Twitter, Burgersburg explained that Substack had taken down his blog due to “multiple bogus DMCA complaints.”
“People don’t think of copyright as a restriction on speech because it’s meant to help creators,” said EFF’s Associate Director of Policy and Activism Katharine Trendacosta in a phone conversation with Mashable. “But copyright is a statutory monopoly on free speech, which makes it conflict with free speech, and which makes the DMCA, which provides an unprecedented opportunity for people to take things down without a court order, an incredibly effective tool for censorship .”
Trendacosta noted how these fake takedown tactics have increased in frequency over the years, with even authoritarian regimes abroad weaponizing copyright to silence critics.
In a statement provided to Mashable on July 15, a Substack spokesperson confirmed that the company had “received several valid DMCA notices about Dirty Bubble Media” and that it “notified the author 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 sent to Substack that resulted in his reporting being removed. Two were for unique articles and one was for an updated version of an article that had already been archived for removal.
While all platforms’ policies are different, Jonathan Bailer, copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte and author on the website Plagiarism todaytells Mashable that he thought it was strange for the platform to completely take down his site in this particular case.
“If the case could be handled with a single DMCA notice and we’re not talking about a sky-high number of works, it really shouldn’t have turned [their termination] politics,” Bailer said.
Burgersburg also confirmed that multiple DMCA takedowns were sent over a four-month period 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 register for Substack.
About 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 gave the complainant 10 days to respond to the dispute.
Since the spring, a company called “Mevrex” has 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 US Copyright Act of 1998, known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which basically gives rights holders a way to remove material they own from a web host or online platform. Mevrex went through the DMCA takedown service, DMCA.com, to file its 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 copied and pasted Burgersburg’s reporting verbatim. They claimed it as their own by simply backdating the post on their website so that it was published on their website before Burgersburg posted it.
DMCA.com did not respond to an inquiry from Mashable.
“It seems unlikely that the service [DMCA.com] have knowingly submitted a false message (they were probably tricked as well),” said Bailer of Plagiarism Today, noting the problems this poses for the filing company as well. “
The Burgersburg articles that UNFT News claims as its own include “Who User $24 million on an NFT? Meet Deepak Thapliyal, The CEO From Nowhere, and “Heidi Klum Owner A Cryptopunk. How Got To Her Wallet Is A Bit Odd.” Burgersburg originally posted these to its Substack newsletter in February. UNFT News claims it published these pieces first, under the headline “UNFT News.”
Burgersburg originally published the article on Deepak Thapliyal on February 14. UNFT News republished 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 that Burgersburg was the plagiarist.
UNFT News repeated this process with the Heidi Klum NFT article backdated to February 9. Like Burgersburg pointed out, there is one problem with that publication date. UNFT News’ domain name, unft.news, was not registered until February 10, meaning UNFT News claims to have published this article before its website existed.
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A Mashable investigation into these claims uncovered archived versions of the UNFT News website at the Internet Archives Wayback Machine. UNFT News, which claims to be “a leading online magazine” powered by “4NFT Media, the largest operating NFT Media company,” did not appear to launch until mid-March 2022. The earliest archived version of the site is from March 19 The archived page from this time period does not show any of the pieces that Burgerberg actually wrote.
Actually watching archives of the site through March 2022, there is not 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 Ice Rugby Photo Hunts”, “The Great Time to Enjoy City Views on the Mountains” and “Outdoor Photography with Sexy and Beautiful.”
Mevrex, the company that claims to own UNFT News in DMCA takedown requests, advertises itself online as “a media agency serving more than 200 brands and businesses in over 30+ countries.” The vast majority of reviews of Mevrex online consist of paid press releases and advertisements from the company itself, which says it was founded by a young entrepreneur named Lakshay Jain and is based in India.
Articles like this filled UNFT News in March 2022. But the articles they claimed Burgerburg took from them are nowhere to be found
When you dive into UNFT News’ social media, it appears that the accounts have been artificially inflated.
UNFT News’ Instagram page, @UNFT, first went live on March 29, 2022. With 244,000 followers, posts rarely get more than single-digit likes. The Facebook page, which was created 2 days before, has around 13,000 followers and also receives very little engagement. The YouTube channel has over 280,000 subscribers, but not a single uploaded public video appears on the profile page. The UNFT News Twitter account, @UNFT_News, appears to have been suspended sometime in April or May of this year. Archived versions of the Twitter profile appears to show the account used to be known as @NFTNews and changed its username sometime in April.
Attempts to reach Mevrex and UNFT News for comment were unsuccessful.
“Absent lawsuits,” EFF’s Trendacosta explained, “there’s really no deterrent to sending a bad takedown.”
As for Mike Burgersburg and Dirty Bubble Media, Substack still hasn’t restored two of the three posts Mevrex falsely claimed were plagiarized.