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Copyright laws: the secret everyone knows

My friend David isn’t exactly a computer wizard, but he excels at certain things. For instance, he recently offered copies of “Adaptation” and “Die Another Day” to me on home-reproduced digital videodiscs. New musical offerings from Beck, Wilco and Stereolab often find their ways into his hands (and CD player) before they even make it into local record stores.

Somewhere, somehow, someone is breaking the law. Copyright law is a funny thing with a funny history in this country. My favorite provision of American copyright law is commonly called “fair use.” Unless you happen to own a lot of stock in the Disney family of companies, “fair use” is probably your favorite provision as well.

If David and his pirating friends get caught with their cache of illegally shared music and cinema, they could, theoretically, be prosecuted. Many of us have read the copyright notice that screens right before the feature on rented videos and have wondered exactly what “the full extent of the law” means; it seems unlikely that David will ever be unfortunate enough to find out.

Here on campus, however, faculty members occasionally allow their course packets to be printed without “clearing” the copyrights. For a copyright of a work to be cleared, the reproducer usually must contact the work’s copyright holder, then either pay a fee for the privilege of reproducing it or somehow convince whatever corporate entity owns the work that the best things in life are free.

Have you ever wondered how a photocopied course packet with a chintzy plastic mock binding could cost upwards of $50? Copyright and reproduction fees are the villains that have caused all that wailing and gnashing of teeth that tends to accompany packet purchases.

When instructors decide to go the alternate route, making their course packets available through photocopy shops that don’t demand copyright clearance, their required reading requires a lot less spending. And that’s fine with me.

Of course, if I had spent the last seven years of my life researching, writing and selling a book, I might feel differently. I might think that people who photocopy large sections of it ought to throw a couple bucks my way, even if those people happen to be poor students who need that money for ramen and beer.

When a brief section from a book or article gets reprinted in a review or some academic essay, the essay writer is perfectly within her legal rights. When an instructor hands out photocopied selections from larger pieces as part of, say, a lecture on different uses of the word “queer,” the fair use provision similarly applies. The people using the work are not making money off of it; only parts of the texts in question are being reproduced for the purpose of discussing a larger idea; and the reproduction of such works isn’t dampening the demand for the real product.

As you might guess, there is a lot of room for wiggling when it comes to fair use. And whenever a legal or ethical issue seems to be about as complicated as it can get, there’s always one more element you can count on to stir things up a little more. Voila, the Web.

In November 2002, Congress passed something it called the “TEACH Act,” which must have seemed pretty cleverly named at the time. Those capital letters allegedly stand for “Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization,” which, in turn, is a reasonable description of the law’s intention.

Recent technology-driven education methods, like distance learning in general and Web CT in particular, are now allowed “more options in using copyrighted materials,” according to the organizers of an upcoming satellite teleconference on the subject.

Ann Payne of the Portland Area Library System is helping to bring that satellite teleconference to Portland State. Scheduled for 11:30 a.m. in the Urban Studies Building on Thursday, Feb. 20, “Copyright Issues Online” promises to address the issues of fair use and copyright restriction. Even as translated into plain English by Kenneth D. Crews of the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, the TEACH Act includes lots of room for nebulous judgment calls.

So why bother? Why take the time to figure out how much students have to pay for something before just zapping a copy to them over the Web?

Well, as it turns out, the institutions that professors work for can be sued right along with the professors themselves. That may be the primary reason that several colleges have established ground rules and policies for such use. Here at PSU, however, those policies don’t seem to have been amended since 1997, if my own Web search can be regarded as conclusive.

In his statement at the time, William H. Feyerherm, acting as vice provost for research, suggested instructors with particularly computer-oriented questions should contact the Office of Information Technologies. Following his advice, I talked to a couple of folks over there, including distributed education technologies manager David Moore. Moore said his office hasn’t yet adopted whatever new policies the TEACH Act might allow, erring on the side of safety by “applying the current fair use provisions” to the computerized medium. “We haven’t addressed the differences” that the new law might allow instructors to exploit, Moore added.

This free (to attendees) teleconference promises to address exactly those differences. Ann Payne noted, “The good thing about teleconferences is that they allow you to get very good speakers for not very much money.” She described it as “the next best thing to having them there.” If you would like to know more about how our school might disseminate resources to its students on the cheap without getting its pants sued off, reserve a seat for yourself at

If you can’t be bothered to attend in person, talk to my pal David. He’ll probably have a high quality copy of it available before the end of the day.