Whats Mine Ain't Yours

Peter Wood

We live in an age that isn’t especially friendly to the idea of intellectual property.  People copy music, images, and words and recycle them freely, often without paying fees or acknowledging sources. There is always some danger from the copyright enforcers who lurch out of the dark from time to time to grab a victim, but humanity isn’t especially moved by these ogres. They give us FBI warnings at the beginning of movie DVDs. They insist on their cut when a professor assembles a course packet. They threaten financial ruin to anyone who defies their edicts. 

But who really has sympathy for media combines attempting to bottle up scholarship—scholarship that the public has often already paid for by means of federal grants to the researchers? Who weeps for musicians forced to earn a living by means of live performances because recorded music is so easily copied?  Who can share the grievance of the grandchildren of a famous author conniving to keep his works under copyright to preserve the royalty stream? 

I have a friend who is an intellectual property lawyer who has mastered the necessary emotional contortions. Watching him is like seeing an advanced yogi adapt wrap her leg around her neck while standing on one hand. It is nice to know it can be done, but I am not tempted to try myself.

In the mid-1980s, when I was an academic librarian, I worked hard at explaining the doctrine of “fair use” to students and faculty members. Librarians are still stuck with the task of explaining how much of and under what conditions people can copy the copyrighted. But now they have some clever help. In May 2007, Eric Faden posted a video (with a credit to the “Stanford Fair Use Project”) that offers a ten minute tutorial on copyright law composed entirely of purloined clips of Disney animation. A Fair(y) Use Tale is partly satire aimed at Disney, “Because this company is intimidating anybody who takes a copyrighted work,” and partly a plea for sensible application of the law: “If fair use actually works then movies like this one will have legal protection.” 

Faden isn’t the only hero attempting to rescue the perplexed from the flypaper of fair use restrictions. In 2006, the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at the Duke University School of Law published a comic book, written by Keith Aoki, James Boyle, and Jennifer Jenkins, that dramatizes the plight of documentary filmmakers who accidentally pick sounds or images from copyrighted works. Fair use?   Bound by Law?  suggests that the trolls and ogres of intellectual property rights have ways around that. 

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March 23, 2011


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