My Digital Storytelling class is covering copyright this week, and while my classmates have definitely offered some articulate and cogent points on the topic in their blog posts, I’m deeply discouraged by the apparent emotional effect of reading a couple hours of information on copyright. The prevalent emotions that people describe after this week’s reading are fear, discouragement, and sadness.

networkmadashell1I’d like to offer an alternative: Rage. Anger and indignation. I know, we’re supposed to be educators, academics. Dispassionate. Objective. We’re supposed to keep our heads low, to save our politics and our opinions for obscure monographs that nobody reads. Educators may be “liberal” or “progressive,” but certainly not radical. We’re the theory folks– leave the praxis to someone else.

I think it’s time we all channel our inner Howard Beale and say:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; educators are having to make due with even less, and at the same time we’re told that digital instruction is the future. We’re expected to be high-tech and given little institutional support and no legal guidance.

We know this is an untenable situation. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we have had another 20,000 copyright suits and 30,000 more on the way— as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my Youtube mashups and let me use a copyrighted picture in my PowerPoints now and again, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and No Child Left Behind and the state budget cuts and the infringements on our right to Fair Use.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value! I have a right to free expression!

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

Teaching, researching, and scholarship are all spelled out in our copyright law as protected activities that entitle one to protection under fair use. We shouldn’t let ourselves be cowered.

And while that passage was written before there was a need to take into account issues like digital pedagogy, I’d argue that it provides for “multiple copies for classroom use” provides a spirit-of-the-law coverage. And don’t even get me started on Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, and its implications for the current state of copyright.

But the fact is, copyright law in America is broken, it grows more and more restrictive, and monied corporate copyright holders have the means to bury individuals, even when those individuals work within the letter of the law with regard to copyright.

And in reaction to this, as we saw in Bound by Law?, documentarians– even those who operate in accordance with fair use laws– are forced to take an array of CYA measures, including paying for clearances that shouldn’t be necessary, editing out key scenes that they can’t afford to clear, and paying exorbitantly for Errors and Omissions Insurance.

So where does that leave us as academics, educators, and students? If we need to be developing these digital skills, to be come digital storytellers ourselves… and if the internet allows us to engage students in a truly multimedia way that is deeply compelling– it’s no wonder that we look at the hoops that filmmakers jump through with fear. ‘Cause teachers have even fewer financial and other resources than even low-budget filmmakers. But we can’t let that push us away from the inevitable direction of education, and we can’t just keep everything we do behind the walled garden of BlackBoard. At least I couldn’t. Not in good conscience.

Instead, we have to take the opposite approach. We have to assert, and assert loudly, that just because we use digital technology doesn’t change the fact that we are academics, teachers, and students. This may mean coming into conflict, at times, with administrators and University Copyright Offices. It may mean getting a few takedown notices and cease and desist letters… That just means you’re doing something right, if it lands in the hands of higher-ups and people outside the school.

Thinking about it, I realized that the provisions protected by fair use and free speech– teaching, research, scholarship, criticism, and parody– that represents something like 99% of everything I do, when it comes to re-purposing other people’s copyrighted material. That could change some day, and I am fine with that, but until it does, I’m just going to go ahead under the assumption that if I’m doing it, then it’s fair use. I refuse to distract myself from the more important issues of scholarship, social and political commentary, communication with students, etc. by the thought of the possibility of copyright lawyers swooping in like Dementors and hitting me with a lawsuit.

So I leave you with a little image I created. Yeah, it’s got a couple copyrighted figures in it, from some big companies: McDonalds, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Windows. But I just don’t care. It’s satire. And the purpose of this blog is academic. That’s protected. And plus– I’m doing it, it must be fair use.

My Fair Use Manifesto.

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3 Responses to COPYRAGE

  1. Rwany Sibaja says:

    Innovation has been the engine of the American economy for well over a century. Are our copyright laws putting us at an economic disadvantage?

    It’s well known that China (primarily) benefits from “lifting” models, plans, and sketches from Western companies and then putting out similar products in their market at much cheaper prices. Does Disney send its lawyers to Beijing over a 5 second clip of Sleeping Beauty on a Chinese TV show? I imagine they do not. My point here Tad, is that the powerful are seemingly above the copyright laws (in this case: 1.3 billion customers), and the insignificant fly nicely under the radar (your blog would be a good example). Copyright laws, then, disproportionately target those who are small enough to be intimidated. Professors, fledgling documentary filmmakers, small companies, school systems.

    So enjoy your anonymity while you have it! Because once you have a nice job with that PhD in hand, the Copyright Wraiths will be watching!

  2. Tad says:

    I’d suggest that sometimes, when you’re surrounded, it’s better to circle your wagons than bury your head in the sand.

    Honestly, if we want to maintain the right to Fair Use, we have to *USE* it, and do so aggressively. Fledgling filmmakers have a profit motive, and they tend to only get into trouble after that motive’s been satisfied– there’s no use suing someone who doesn’t have any money. Or at least, that’s the old model. Organizations like the RIAA and MPAA and others are actually trying to change that to intimidate people out of piracy. But piracy is illegal, where Freedom of Expression and the right to exercise fair use are RIGHTS.

    Let’s exercise our rights before they’re steamrolled out of existence.

    Being overcautious about copyright encourages the erosion of intellectual freedom and free expression. Because– and I feel like we might disagree here– nobody’s going to go after teachers. Why would you go after someone who’s making forty grand a year (or, if they’re like many PhDs stuck in adjunct-land, as little as <20K) for using your product in a legal fashion in an educational setting? With no hopes of actually getting any real compensatory damages? Why risk the public relations fiasco?

    We, as academics, students, educators, are perhaps in a better position than anyone in this country to stand up for fair use. If not us, who?

  3. Rwany Sibaja says:

    No, no point of disagreement here.

    The only thing I would point out (and I addressed this at some length on susan douglass’ post for the week) is that companies do not go after teachers, they go after school systems. Since state officials, often working under tight fiscal restraints due to legislative balanced budget processes, are unwilling to use extra money to fight off litigation from Disney or Harcourt Publishing…then they simply pass on restrictive decrees upon all educators in the state.

    All because one teacher, in one school district, dared to do something bold and innovative to engage students. It sounds ridiculous, and stupid, but I saw firsthand how this process works at the district and state level. In fact, many of the “head-scratching” policies came from school board members with their own agendas (and political supporters/donors) to appease. But for teachers, working under fair-use, the lid on their innovation was mostly closed shut by a common phrase: “we don’t want to get sued.”

    And few people ever asked if anyone actually understood the language in the copyright, or other legal, policies. That also included teachers (myself included). If anything, Clio 1 and DST have shown me that being informed about copyrights can lead to both enlightenment and banging my head on the wall with frustration.

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