Earlier this year, the vegan-meat company No Evil Foods, which sells socialist-themed products at 5,500 grocery stores across the United States, including Whole Foods, fought a union drive at its Weaverville, North Carolina-plant.
The anti-union campaign led by No Evil Foods management featured a series of compulsory meetings, some of which were recorded by workers on their personal phones, portions of which were published in May by Motherboard and several other outlets, including In These Times, Industrial Worker, and the podcast Dixieland of the Proletariat.
Someone claiming to represent the company now appears to be trying to scrub the internet of these recordings by filing takedown requests on copyright and privacy grounds with the sites on which they're hosted. Audio of the meeting has been deleted from YouTube, SoundCloud, and the podcast hosting platform LibSyn in recent days. A freelance journalist, Andrew Miller, who published the audio, had his personal website shut down by his web host HostGator on August 27. The takedown requests, several of which were viewed by Motherboard, claim that the speeches the company wrote are copyrighted. One video and four audio recordings—including two full-length podcast episodes that incorporate recordings of the meeting—have been flagged and removed from the internet.
No Evil Foods did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment, and the company blocked me on their official Twitter account. Emailed requests for comment sent to "firstname.lastname@example.org," the address that filed the complaints, were not returned. On Friday, LibSyn determined that one of the takedown requests was "fraudulent," meaning that the person who filed it did not have a legitimate copyright claim, according to an email obtained by Motherboard. The episode of Dixieland of the Proletariat was restored because No Evil Foods did not respond to an inquiry about fraud from the podcast platform.
Motherboard spoke to copyright experts who said that under fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law, news outlets likely did not violate No Evil Foods' copyright by publishing the audio recordings. In the United States, fair use allows the limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder specifically for the uses of news reporting and criticism.
"Copyright is not a restriction on speech or expression or news gathering," Katharine Trendacosta, the lead policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Motherboard. "It’s meant as a way to protect the rights of artists. To use it to [prevent journalists from reporting the news] is not the way it was intended."
It is also not clear who specifically owns the copyright of these recordings. U.S. copyright law is notoriously complicated, and while No Evil Foods owns the copyright on the text of the speech itself, an audio recording of it could be considered a separate work, according to copyright experts. The U.S. copyright office itself explains that this is a particularly complicated area of copyright. Motherboard is also unsure what agreements employees signed with No Evil Foods as terms of their employment and if they contain any copyright clauses.
No Evil Foods brands itself as a radical leftist company, selling $8 packages of vegan products with names like "Comrade Cluck" (a mock chicken seasoned with garlic and onion), and "El Zapatista" (a substitute chorizo), a reference to Mexico’s anti-capitalist guerilla movement. On its website, the company says, “we do good no evil. We care about doing good through the products we make.” The anti-union speeches given by No Evil Foods founders fit within a larger trend of outwardly progressive companies like the ACLU and Whole Foods taking anti-union stances when their workers seek to improve their working conditions.
In meetings recorded by workers and published by Motherboard and other outlets, which have since been taken off the internet, the company's founders Mike Woliansky and Sadrah Schadel utilize standard anti-union talking points, warning their employees that a union would scare away investors, take away their rights, and drain their wages like a "shitty gym membership that you just want to get out of."
In 2019, workers at the plant began a union campaign with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in order to lock their wages, benefits, and hours into a contract. In a speech, Schadel said that while she supports the idea of unions, she firmly did not believe a union, specifically UFCW, would be a "progressive" choice for the company.
Woliansky compared joining the UFCW, which represents tens of thousands of meatpacking workers in the US, to “hitching your wagon to a huge organization with high paid executives and a history of scandal and supporting slaughterhouses." Meanwhile, Schadel said the union "is the exact opposite of what we stand for and who we are."
Following the series of anti-union speeches, workers voted against joining the UFCW in a landslide 43-15 vote in February. After the election, No Evil Foods fired two employees who were active in the union drive. Both of the workers filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), claiming the company had fired them for engaging in protected activities.
In early August, Motherboard received a notification from YouTube that a video of one of the speeches had received a privacy complaint. The video was subsequently removed; YouTube denied an appeal to leave it up. In recent weeks, SoundCloud has also removed audio of the speeches published by Motherboard and Industrial Worker, citing supposed copyright violations.
Each of the recordings was taken on workers' personal devices in North Carolina, which requires the consent of only one present person in order to record audio.
In an email complaint to the podcast platform Libsyn about a version of the audio that appeared on In These Times's Working People podcast on August 24, someone using the email address "email@example.com" claimed that the recording was "Unauthorized" because it included contents "authored" by the two No Evil Foods founders and a hired consultant. The name on the email account is "Rachel Woliansky," and Soundcloud told Industrial Worker that the inquiry came from "Rachel Woliansky." (No Evil Foods' CEO Mike Woliansky has a relative with the same name, according to a public database.) The email address Rachel@noevilfoods.com did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.
"Each clip was authored by Mark McPeak, Sadrah Schadel, & Michael Woliansky of No Evil Foods, respectively," the person in control of firstname.lastname@example.org wrote. "I hereby state that I have a good faith belief that the disputed use of the copyrighted material is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law."
Andrew Miller, the freelance reporter who had his personal website suspended on August 27 for supposed copyright violations, has filed a counter notice with the platform Hostgator, contesting the claim.
A provision in 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it possible for parties to request the takedown of online content simply by filing a claim, as someone did on Soundcloud and Libsyn. Online platforms generally remove the content immediately unless accused parties issue a counter notice saying they believe the claim is false; as Motherboard has reported before, DMCA is regularly abused because platforms generally default to removing content, which is legally safer than leaving contested content online.
"Abuse of the DMCA is much more common than you'd think," said Trendacosta, the EFF policy analyst. "It’s the quickest way to get stuff off the internet. People will say you need DMCA laws for artists. But when things like this happen, it points out the dangers of making a system that takes down things."
Cory Doctorow, a prominent internet rights expert, activist, and science fiction author, said that companies and other actors have a strong interest in presenting unfavorable coverage as a copyright infringement.
"What if Harvey Weinstein had taken copious notes on his crimes, and then said he had a copyright right on them, and that you couldn't publish them? This is news reportage and it's in the public interest to know about it," Doctorow said. "But there's a strong interest in presenting this as copyright infringement."
Adding to the absurdity of the situation, it appears that email@example.com filed at least some of these complaints using a pseudonym. Some of the takedown requests (sent by firstname.lastname@example.org) were signed "Birdie Gregson," a pseudonym also used by a former No Evil Foods employee who was active in the union drive on a Twitter account that posts about union-busting at No Evil Foods and other companies.
LibSyn told Motherboard that a complaint identical to the one about the Working People podcast episode using the name Birdie Gregson was filed about an episode of the leftist podcast Dixieland of the Proletariat, which also featured audio from the No Evil Foods founders' speeches. LibSyn said it had no choice but to take down the entire podcast episodes, but reuploaded one of them on August 28 after No Evil Foods did not respond to an inquiry from LibSyn.
In an email to the podcast producer, a representative from LibSyn wrote, "We reached out to No Evil Foods to confirm if Birdie Gregson was a real person and they did not reply to our inquiry….Sorry for the issue they put you through we have never seen a fraudulent DMCA takedown notice before and are shocked any company would do this."
In an email sent by Soundcloud to Industrial Worker, Soundcloud indicated that its takedown request came from Rachel Woliansky, associated with a Soundcloud account with the name "Birdie Gregson." The only action that account has taken was "liking" an episode of a vegan podcast in which No Evil Foods executives Mike Woliansky and Sadrah Schadel were interviewed. The podcast was uploaded six months ago, prior to any of this happening.
In recent months, an Instagram account formed with the handle @birdiegregson, which praises working conditions at No Evil Foods. Its bio reads: "#noevilfoodsarethebestfoods I’ve had a change of heart and I’m calling off my smear campaign."
Workers say they believe the account was created by someone at No Evil Foods in order to confuse people; No Evil Foods did not respond to a request for comment about the account or the use of the name Birdie Gregson.