Is There A Copyright Lawyer In the House?

This week I attempted to unravel the heaping hot mess that was my understanding of copyright law. Under the mass of confusion was a black hole that tugged at logic and reason, and then crushed those ideas at the event horizon.
I’d like to start with what went wrong with copyright law. The only reasonable answer is the government. As Mark Helprinmay points out in his article,  A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright? the federal “Constitution states unambiguously that Congress shall have the power,” to determine the length of copyright protection. But the Constitution also reads that any treaty the nation enters becomes the law of the land and as Steven Seidenberg reminded readers in his article A Trove of Historic Jazz Recordings has Found a Home in Harlem, But You Can’t Hear Them, “international treaties” have impacted domestic copyright laws. See? Government.  

As an undergrad and now as a first quarter graduate student my biggest concern has been plagiarism. I’ve spent a lot of hours with my inanimate best friend and manual “Chicago Style” to ensure my footnotes were right, rechecking quotation marks, and rewriting summaries and paraphrases until I balled everything so tight that one more edit might cause the words to exploded into a new universe. But that’s part of who I am. I want to make sure that my ideas are clearly shown to be mine and the people who have helped shape my world view are given their due credit. But copyright is a horse of another color. This is where I run into conflict with my friend, Chicago.

In Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide To Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, in the chapter “Owning the Past” the men cover fair use rules. They compile an argument agent being “too cautious” with fair use rules because, ” ‘Without being exercised,’ Stowe argues, ‘the right to fair use will simply atrophy.’ Even the more cautious Chicago Manual warns against seeking permission where there is the slightest doubt because ‘the right of fair use is valuable to scholarship, and it should not be allowed to decay because scholars fail to employ it boldly.'” First, “too cautious” is ambiguase and each author and publisher needs to make the call based on the advice given to them by their lawyers. Second, the “atrophy” and “decay” of laws is a necessary part of the advancement of our civilization. This is where the black hole’s gravity starts to distoret everything. 

I think it’s fair to pause and ask if my blog posts have violated copyright laws. Uhm? I don’t think so. But, then again my understanding of the law is still as convoluted as the law itself. Just to be safe, this web page has been set to self-destruct on the first day of winter brake. Chicago might be cringing, but scholarship gains nothing by my being “bold” and I lose nothing by taking everything down at the end of the class.         

2 thoughts on “Is There A Copyright Lawyer In the House?”

  1. Yeah, the issue of international and domestic laws tripping over each other is daunting, isn’t it? It seems like every few years, we’re protesting some new treaty that would hand over copyright enforcement to some unaccountable extra-national system. And there are plenty of snarls in U.S. copyright law all by itself. Heaping hot mess, indeed.

  2. Is there a self-destruction widget that I need to know about? I am so glad I chose history over law school. Well, actually, I can’t say that yet. But copyright laws are intimidating. “Promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts” seems so simple, yet after reading Creative Commons chair Lawrence Lessig’s remarks on The Way Back Machine, I feel like his interpretation has befuddled me.


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