If I thought copyright was a tricky and irritating thing, coming from the perspective of an instructor, it’s much more of a potential problem when looked at from the perspective of creating an online collection, as I discovered in writing a paper on the topic.

Copyright law is lengthy, complicated, and (in my opinion at least) frequently does not actually do what it is intended for, that is, “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” as stated in article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. A compilation of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 plus related and more recent acts runs to over 300 pages (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/circ92.pdf). Wading through the tortuous prose of the Act is not easy. Luckily there are various other publications which summarize certain areas of the law and discuss their applicability, like the ARL’s “Know Your Copy Rights®: Using copyrighted works in academic settings” (http://www.knowyourcopyrights.org/index.shtml).

I learned the interesting fact that copyright law in the U.S. is usually revised by having the industries involved work out the changes in the law and then give that suggested text to Congress (Dames 2006, 36). This struck me as extremely problematic; the industries, e.g. publishers, are going to have a lot more clout and stand to profit the most from changes in copyright law such as a lengthened terms of copyright, and will the actual creators of the works. It’s difficult to see how, then, creative thought is likely to be stimulated by copyright.

On the other hand, the fact that copyright is now assumed and need not be formally registered (for a price) is a plus in these days of the internet, since someone (a U.S. citizen anyhow) who places a new creative work on the internet does retain copyright to that work. They may choose to relinquish some or all of their rights, e.g. with a Creative Commons license (see http://creativecommons.org/) which allows others to use the work in defined fashion, but it’s at their choice.

What I concluded overall from the research I did was that it’s critical for any person or institution that may be setting up a digital collection to be extremely careful ahead of time in paying attention to the issue of copyright, and ensuring that either the collection’s contents are in the public domain, or that all necessary rights permissions have been secured. While an instructor in a classroom may be able to use materials on the basis of fair use, creating a permanent online collection is a very different matter.

Reference:

Dames, K. Matthew. 2006. The copyright landscape: Introducing U.S. copyright law. Online (Sept./Oct.): 35-8.

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