Urban Copyright Legends
Brandon Butler, Director of Public Policy Initiatives, ARL
s a copyright lawyer, I sometimes wish there were a copyright
version of Snopes.com—a Web site where non-experts could check
to see whether the things they read online about copyright are
true or just urban legends. The recent dispute between the University of
California, Los Angeles and an association of film distributors has been the
occasion for earnest repetition of several copyright urban legends that are at
best debatable and at worst plain false.1 Tragically, these myths are just as
likely to be repeated by librarians and educators as by advocates for rights
holders. The discussion of streaming films provides an excellent opportunity
to clear up some common misunderstandings about how copyright law works.
Copyright Basics: Control with Exceptions
US copyright law allows rights holders a degree of control over both
reproduction and distribution of protected works. The law also includes
several exceptions that allow libraries and others to make use of copyrighted
materials without asking permission or paying a fee. Among those exceptions
are Section 107 (fair use) and Section 110(2) (the TEACH Act).2 These
exceptions and limitations are just as important as copyright protection itself.
They are a vital safety valve that prevents copyright from being an oppressive
monopoly. In fact, the Supreme Court has said that without exceptions to
facilitate access, copyright law would violate the First Amendment.3
Urban Fair Use Legends
Fair use provides the broadest, most flexible protection for unauthorized
copying, performance, and display of copyrighted works. Determining
whether a particular use of a copyrighted work is fair can seem intimidating,
as the law has evolved from court cases and was written in an intentionally
broad way to allow flexibility and continued evolution of the doctrine.
Nevertheless, the situation is not nearly so dire as the following urban
legends suggest.
RLI 270
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