Cafe Press's Automated Censorship

14 January, 2006

So, I really don't like ketchup (I like it even less if you spell it "catsup"). I'm always shocked to see people happily pouring it over their meals, eating drenched soggy sugary red mush. Blech! Anyway, to celebrate my spite, I decided to add an anti-ketchup shirt to my T-Shirt-A-Day catalogue. Reasonable enough desire.

So, I opened up Illustrator and drew a relatively generic ketchup bottle. I hinted at the Heinz chevron-shaped label, but left out any real branding elements. It's no particular make or model of the stuff I have a problem with. Then I slapped on the witty slogan "KETCHUP SUCKS!". Pleased with myself, I headed over to Cafe Press to upload the design.

After chewing on the file for much longer than usual, Cafe Press displayed my image surrounded by an angry red box. And the usual option to make it into a product wasn't available. When I clicked the info icon, here was their explanation:

"All images on CafePress.com are verified to ensure that they do not violate the rights of a third party. This image cannot be added to any product since it is pending image verification for the following reason: Your image may be Copyright/Trademark protected and require a license prior to its use for merchandise sales."

Simultaneously, they sent me an email:

"We recently learned that your CafePress.com account contains material which may not be in compliance with our policies. Specifically, designing, manufacturing, marketing and/or selling products that may infringe the rights of a third party, including, copyrights (e.g., an image of a television cartoon character), trademarks (e.g., the logo of a company), "rights in gross" (e.g., the exclusive right of the U.S. Olympic Committee to use the "Olympic Rings"), and rights of privacy and publicity (e.g., a photo of a celebrity) are prohibited."

OK. I had figured that "ketchup" was a generic word. Maybe it had started as a brand name, but now it was in common enough usage to be free from any linkage to a particular company or product, like "band-aid" or "q-tip". But perhaps I was wrong.

So I went back in and edited my design's text. "LET'S RUIN LUNCH!" it would now say. Pithy, sonorous, and in no way in violation of anyone's copyright.

I re-uploaded. Everything seemed to be hunky-dory. No angry red box. It let me create a shirt. I even managed to go through my normal process for blogging it. Look, here it is:

I thought that settled the matter. But no. Just now, an email: the same again, ""We recently learned that your CafePress.com account contains material. . ." and again the angry red box and the product I'd created, Bad Condiment, vanished from my store.

Now, this I just don't get! Is the problem that the image file I uploaded is called "ketchup.jpg"? Are they somehow doing shape recognition on the bottle's chevron (hard to believe since I hand drew it and it's in perspective) or the shape of the ketchup bottle as a whole? What's in their censorship algorithm? It seems to be much stricter than their articulated policy would lead you to expect. Also shouldn't there be some kind of exception for satire?

Has anyone else ever run into Cafe Press's automated censorship or have any kind of sense of what it's limits are? I've read their documentation and I can't figure out what part of my image is triggering the problem. Grrr. . .

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