Everybody’s favorite legislation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, got a workout yesterday. WalMart, Target, Best Buy, and Staples served notices under the DMCA on a bargain hunter web site, FatWallet.com, claiming that their sale prices are copyrighted trade secrets. Here’s The Register’s summary of what happened.

The DMCA notice is directed at lists of sale prices compiled by FatWallet.com on items in the stores. Not ad layouts or logos or something like that – just lists of how much it will cost to go into the stores and buy things. Now you might be asking yourself – is a price list something that can be copyrighted? How can a list compiled by looking at advertisements conceivably be a trade secret?

In today’s climate, any big company can assert that anything is copyrighted. If the big company can afford lawyers and the target cannot, the big company wins, period.

Heard the expression “chilling effect”? The web site doesn’t have the resources to take on those companies, so it removed the information it had about sales at those stores. And the DMCA’s “Safe Harbor” provision makes it necessary for the web site to censor anyone who posts messages on its public forum about sales at those stores.

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