Urban Copyright Legends Brandon Butler, Director of Public Policy Initiatives, ARL A 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 16 JUNE 2010 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A BIMONTHLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
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