Thursday, July 7, 2011

Copyright or Copy WRONG?

In my graduate class we read the article “Copyright in the Digital Age” by Gary Becker, an outline was given about the copyright history, current copyright laws and special educational provisions in those copyright laws. The article covered some of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  The article is broken down well enough for young teachers or those new to the education field.  

While this article did address the 1978 copyright act that increased the total time the work would be protected under copyright, it failed to mention the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.  This act froze copyrights for works made in 1923 or afterwards from entering into the public domain.  Many works that had been in the public domain in 1998 were taken out of public domain and put into a copyrighted status.  Many people believe that this was the Mickey Mouse Act but Steamboat Willie, on which Mickey Mouse’s copyright is based, was created in 1928.  

Article I, Section 8, also known as the Copyright Clause, empowers the US Congress to granting limited, exclusive right to the inventors or creators of works.  The framers wanted to encourage scientific pursuits and the arts and felt that granting creators copyright furthered this goal.  The framers also felt that this time was to be limited and the work should be put into the public domain which was free to use by anyone.  Public Domain is the whole of works that are free to be used by anyone. 

Besides the glaring omission of the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, the article also left out how fair use affects the general public and journalism.  Current journalism is in a state of flux with big news companies being outpaced by the blogosphere.  Countries are being overthrown by Twitter.  Many journalists are finding out the hard way that reporting on news or popular culture is very legally difficult.  Reporters and agencies are being taken to court over copyrighted material that used to fall under fair use guidelines.  How will these court cases affect education fair use? 

Another issue touched on by Mr. Becker is technological circumvention.  According to the DMCA, if there are technical barriers put in place by the creator of a work, it is illegal to circumvent these barriers.  As a scientist and engineer, I like to take things apart and figure out how they work.  This simple hobby has been criminalized.  Reverse engineering was an acceptable way to gain knowledge.  The first steam locomotive was reverse engineered from a British design.  Reverse engineering democratizes technology.  The DMCA also changed ownership.  No longer can the buyer assume that the product he or she bought can be used for any purpose.  Imagine buying a hammer and a screwdriver and finding out the license for each is limited to hammering certain brand of nails and using certain brand of screws.  Most hardware and software purchased today have limitations in the licenses that limit how the consumer can use that product.  If a consumer used the screwdriver to open a paint can, or used the hammer in demolition work, they are in direct conflict with the license and the DMCA. 

Because of the draconian measures of the DMCA, several new developments have evolved that may benefit teachers.  Ignoring the black hat hacking scene, let us focus on two emerging “copyleft” movements.  Creative Commons allows flexibility and freedom of artist, publishers and educators to access material both analog and digital, but mostly digital.  Creative Commons allows flexible copyrights, especially in respect to digital.  The other “copyleft” movement is GNU General Public License.  This is a software license for free software by those who believe in free software.  If commercially made software was made with any software code that is covered by the GNU General Public License, then the software has to be made publically available for free.  Much of the Linux operating system is built of the GNU License, as are many other programs. 

As a former engineer, I knew about the copyright issue but I did not know how educators were affected or what they are being taught.  Most educators are frightened by the large sticks that districts and big media wave at them.  There are several legal and free alternatives available for teachers.  Why do educators trust a major for-profit publishing house over altruistic non-profit organizations?  Does the educator ever consider the internal motivations of the for-profit corporation?

This article was a good starting point for the discussion of copyright.  It failed to mention updates in the law, some important acts on copyright and failed to mention alternatives or explain public domain.  The author seemed to want his article to be a jumping point for more in depth study of copyright.  Did the framers really want art and science to be protected indefinitely?  Would Samuel Clemens want his works to be removed from the public domain so that his distant descendants could profit from his work?  I think I know the answer and so do you.

*note:  the link above is the only reference I could find in a hurry.  Anyone else have a good link please let me know.  Thanks!

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