New Snowden Documentary Censored Online

New Snowden Documentary Censored Online

In January, a leaked copy of the film Citizenfour was posted online. Citizenfour details how Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents, which revealed a massive government surveillance program. Soon after the film appeared online, copies of the film started to disappear from various websites. Copies of Citizenfour or links to the film have been removed from,,, Youtube, and other websites. From links to blocked copies of Citizenfour on Youtube, it appears that Weinstein, Haut et Court, and Home Box Office, Inc. (HBO) have filed copyright complaints.

Screenshot - 01242015 - 02:14:29 PM

Photo taken on January 24, 2015 from a US IP address.

Several Twitter users also received copyright complaints for sharing links to the Citizenfour film. The copyright complaint was filed by WebSheriff, but the complaint does not list anyone as the copyright holder.


Tweet censored due to WebSheriff’s copyright complaint.

While the distributors of Citizenfour try to erase the film from the internet, perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the film is about the most brazen act of digital piracy in history. Snowden never asked permission to copy NSA documents and distribute them.

Instead of being widely available to watch online, the film was initially released only in certain movie theatres. Many people who wanted to watch Citizenfour were not able to, because movie theatres showing the film were too far away. Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex), a film director known for her views on copyright issues, expressed her dismay at the way Citizenfour was initially released. Alexander wrote:

“I’m disappointed in the copyright reform/internet community who have been silent about the hypocrisy of this movie’s release. If you’re bitching about people for being greedy and selfish, be egalitarian about it. Don’t let people off the hook because their film/message is the current rock star of the movement.”

John Young of Cryptome (@Cryptomeorg), a website known for publishing government documents, has been campaigning for all the NSA documents to be released. John Young wrote:

“Citizenfour is public domain and those who are commercializing it should be considered thieves of public property which Snowden liberated […] All the Snowden material, from him, and from those covering the story, should be free and in the public domain. Too bad such a tiny portion has been released in the grotesque commerce surrounding an exemplary public service for which only Snowden is paying a very high price, his liberty while his loudmouth exploiters and fans enjoy celebrity rewards around the world.”

Some people have suggested that Citizenfour should have been released under a creative commons license. A creative commons license would have allowed most people to more easily share and distribute the Citizenfour film. Films can often cost a significant amount of money to produce. Crowdfunding has been promoted as a way for projects to raise enough money to release their work under a creative commons license. One of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns for a film was for a Veronica Mars sequel which raised over $5 million dollars, but even that film is copyrighted. While crowdfunding had some major successes, there are also many projects which fail to reach their fundraising targets. Citizenfour’s director and distributors could also face major legal costs associated with the film. A lawsuit has been filed against Citizenfour’s director and distributors. The lawsuit is likely to be thrown out of court, but not before promising to rack up hefty legal bills.

While it is unlikely that anyone will be criminally charged for sharing copies of Citizenfour, it is important to note that under US law, certain types of copyright infringement are a felony punishable with as many as three to five years in prison for first time offenders. Under certain circumstances, distributing copies of Citizenfour could land someone in jail. It is quite a harsh threat for distributing a film, which some people believe should be in the public domain.

When Edward Snowden leaked the NSA documents, it was never for fame or wealth. Snowden’s motivation for whistleblowing was in service to the public interest.

“My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them,” Snowden wrote in a note to the Washington Post.

In Citizenfour, when commenting on his whistleblowing, Snowden said, “…and hopefully when I’m gone, whatever you do to me, there will be someone else who will do the same thing. It will be the sort of the internet principle of the hydra. You know, you can stomp on one person, but there is going to be seven more of us.” The same thing could be said of online piracy.


Featured image: Picture of Edward Snowden at SXSW, used under fair use exemption (news reporting).