In today’s New York Times, there is an excellent article on the ongoing battle between companies and consumers over online criticism. In addition to discussing the various lawsuits that have been brought, the article also noted the following:
Recognizing that lawsuits can bring more unwanted attention, one organization has taken a different tack. The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives the doctor copyright over a Web posting if the patient mentions the doctor or practice.
Dr. Jeffrey Segal, chief executive of Medical Justice, said about half of the group’s 2,500 members use the agreement.
“I, like everyone else, like to hear two sides of the story,” he said. “The problem is that physicians are foreclosed from ever responding because of state and federal privacy laws. In the rare circumstance that a posting is false, fictional or fraudulent, the doctor now has the tool to get that post taken down.”
This so-called “agreement” strikes me as both legally and ethically suspect. Not only does copyright law generally require written assignments of copyright to be for some kind of payment (what is the payment here? The medical treatment? I thought that was what health insurance and co-pays were for?) but unless it is a work-for hire or some other kind of ongoing employment relationship, you generally can’t force people to assign their copyright in a web posting before it is written.
Moreover, such an agreement seems unethical under the American Medical Association Ethics Code. AMA Ethics Opinion 8.03 states:
Under no circumstances may physicians place their own financial interests above the welfare of their patients. The primary objective of the medical profession is to render service to humanity; reward or financial gain is a subordinate consideration. For a physician to unnecessarily hospitalize a patient, prescribe a drug, or conduct diagnostic tests for the physician’s financial benefit is unethical. If a conflict develops between the physician’s financial interest and the physician’s responsibilities to the patient, the conflict must be resolved to the patient’s benefit.
Since the main concern of Medical Justice appears to be preventing harm to the physician’s reputation (and thus financial interest), forcing patients to assign away their copyrights in exchange for medical care strikes me as close if not over this line. It certainly is not putting patients first. When a patient goes to see a doctor, they are often anxious, in pain, or worried and thus in a very psychologically vulnerable position, or what the law often calls a position of “duress” where they will often sign documents without giving them proper consideration. This hardly seems to me to be a fair time to demand they assign some unknown number of future copyrights to their doctor; instead it feels like a huge power grab by the physician.
Moreover, as Dr. Segal states in the article, these so-called “assignments” of copyright become a “tool” to take posts down from the Web. One can surmise that he intends for these doctors to invoke the notice-and-takedown provisions of Section 512 of the DMCA as a convenient way to censor criticism and cajole websites like Yelp! to remove the postings. However, this too strikes me as unethical and a potential abuse of the DMCA system. The DMCA takedown system was meant to allow copyright owners whose works were being posted online by others and costing them sales of copyrighted goods (e.g. movies and music) to enjoy an expedited process for stopping infringement and limiting economic harm to their content.
Here, it is clear that these web postings have no economic value as content to the physicians — rather they are, at best, potentially harmful to their reputations (note again, though, that this would likely be a violation of their ethical duty either way).
I should note that much of this is speculation on my part. I have not seen this so-called agreement and have not heard of any doctor taking things off the web based on it; but it does strike me as ironic that a group like Medical Justice, which proclaims its mission as “relentlessly protecting physicians from frivolous lawsuits” would embrace and endorse potentially frivolous, unethical, and abusive legal documents and actions to further its goals.