While doing some research today I was reading an old column by James Boyle about then-recent experiments in open access publishing in 2007. Seeing an interesting snippet, I did the ol’ Ctrl-C and pasted it into my notes, where I was surprised to see this prepended to my selection:

Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

I’ve seen websites garble copied text or outright disable it, but I’ve never seen a site actually inject unrelated text before.

I was curious how they had implemented this, so I fired up firefox devtools and searched for a snippet of the notice in the site sources.

firefox devtools search

Thankfully, the FT provides a sourcemap so I was able to find the de-minified legal-copy/main.js implementation and see what was going on. Essentially, it boils down to this:

function handleCopy(e) {
    var selection = window.getSelection().toString();
    var wordCount = selection.split(/\s+/).length;
    if (wordCount > 30) {
        var patchedText = "hello world\n" + selection;
        e.clipboardData.setData('text/plain', patchedText);
document.body.addEventListener('copy', handleCopy);

It includes some subtleties around detecting browser support for the rich ClipboardEvent API and handling legacy Chrome quirks, as well as trying to disable the “feature” when it suspects a screen reader is being used (points to the FT for accessibility consideration, though I have a feeling this was a response to a complaint).

Is copying 30 words legal? The injected text warns “Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy”—copying articles, not 30 words. I’m no lawyer, but fair use protects a great many things one might copy 30 words for, like quotation in another article, or in my case, personal notekeeping. While some infringing uses can be imagined, does this warrant such a violation of internet norms?

The current working draft of the W3C Clipboard spec describes mechanical use-cases for manipulating the clipboard like attaching metadata, rich text transfer, and translating mathematical notation to plaintext—not scaring people away from exercising their rights. There’s a set of implicit ground rules for what should and should not be done on websites. Interfering with standard access patterns like closing tabs and using right-click menus violates the social contract of the internet and further threatens its endangered state as a thing to be used, not a thing that uses you.

Incidentally, the article I was reading was by James Boyle, a copyright reformist who was a columnist for the Financial Times largely because they allowed him to retain his copyrights, with at least some under Creative Commons licenses, so it seems likely I actually could copy the whole article if I wanted to.

It turns out lots of other people have noticed this kind of bad behavior and have built circumventing browser extensions like this one which I just happily used to copy this passage from the article:

The internet makes copying cheap. Businesses that see their livelihood as dependent on the restriction of copying – concentrated in the recording, film, publishing and software industries – are understandably upset. Their goal is to have the same ability to control their content as they had in an analog world but to keep all the benefits of pervasiveness, cost saving, and viral marketing that a global digital network brings. To that end, they have moved aggressively to change laws worldwide, to introduce stiffer penalties, expand rights, mandate technological locks, forbid reverse engineering, and increase enforcement. It is not so much a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it, as to have their cake and make your cake illegal.