Thursday, June 21, 2007

Photocopies: Are You Breaking the Law?

I’ve talked about photocopies made by libraries and schools that are protected (somewhat) by the garbled guidelines of fair use. But what about copies made by copy shops? Should the copy shop employees be responsible for making sure that permissions have been obtained for the materials they’re copying?

Due to the fact that copy shops (such as Kinko’s) had gotten into trouble for copyright infringements in the past, the Copyright Clearance Center was established. Founded in 1978, it’s a nonprofit organization that makes the process of using copyrighted materials easier by offering consumers permissions to use the materials for a fee. So consumers can pay to use copyrighted materials that were submitted to the center, and the creators of the copyrighted works get compensated (this is a simplified summary of how it works). I’m sure it’s not flawless but it seems like a fair enough system that allows both parties to get what they want. (Or at least to get some of what they want.)

And what, dear reader, about copies that you yourself make? On your VCR at home or by surreptitiously using the copier at work while you should be filing, or even at the library? Are you a copyright infringer when you make copies of things without first getting permission?

Yes and no. No one’s really sure. Some people claim that if you’re making the copies for personal use—say, taping a show to watch when you get home from work or photocopying a favorite poem to hang up for inspiration in your cubicle—that this use is fair. You’re not trying to benefit from the copy you’ve made; you’re just trying to enhance your life.

But Congress and the courts have been wary to label these personal uses of copyrighted materials as fair uses—in essence they’ve avoided saying anything at all. This means that there are no fair use guidelines for personal copying, which further means that every time you make a copy of copyrighted materials for personal use, you are infringing upon that copyright.

[points and calls you INFRINGER!]

But of course, no one really gets in trouble for making personal copies. Even though it’s technically an infringement, copyright holders don’t rise up en masse and come after these people because it’s generally not doing them much harm. And they generally don’t even know it’s going on in the first place. Since we’re thankfully not yet living in the era of Big Brother, citizens can pretty much do/copy as they wish in the privacy of their homes. Copyright law tends to emphasize the fact that copies made for public consumption without permission are illegal and an infringement, but Congress has stayed basically mum on creating guidelines governing fair use for personal copying. So what does that mean? Is in fact then legal? Should we abide by a don’t ask, don’t tell policy as we do with many other things?

My belief is that personal copying really isn’t hurting anyone if it’s kept strictly personal—that is, putting the new album you bought on iTunes on your iPod, not making 20 copies of it for all your friends. I read an interesting viewpoint on copyright by Paul Goldstein, the author of “Copyright’s Highway,” that really helped me come to this conclusion. In it he talked about how intellectual property differs from regular property in its very sort of “metaphysical” state. Physical property is often diminished in some way when it is used: crayons wear down as we color with them, playground equipment breaks down when we play on it, a box of cookies disappears (sadly) as we eat them. The value of these things thus diminishes. But the value of an intellectual property item does not diminish as it’s used. In contrast, its value often increases the more it’s used. The pages of a book might come loose or a record might get scratched, but the contents—the story, the songs—retain their value. So each time a piece of intellectual property is used by a new consumer, the value of its content remains the same, or, one could even argue, increases as it is shared with others.

This segues nicely into the concept of public domain and the sharing of information in an increasingly smaller world, so that’s where we’ll pick up next time. Brace yourself: It's a doozy!

For information on the Copyright Clearinghouse Center:

1 comment:

john said...

A little far afield from your focus, but other companies are already starting to attempt to stop you from using the material you bought in the way that you want to use them. The lastest bit is that AT&T (you know the iPhone carrier) is looking in to putting some software in to their systems to check if anyone is sending copyrighted material over their services ( But there's also been the attempts by Sony to put rootkits on your computer, record companies sending audio that's locked in the playing device t reviewer and even listening parties where people can go to the studio or the office to listen to an album but not actually listen to it in the privacy of their own homes. It's an interesting subject (and one that's sure to make reader's blood boil when they see what companies can get a way with).