Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Does Copyright Stagnate Creativity?

The Center for Social Media at American University just released a survey on the impact of copyright and fair use on communication scholars. The survey was conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Fair Use and Academic Freedom in the International Communication Association (ICA), and which, in their words:

[R]eveals that copyright ignorance and misunderstanding hamper distribution of finished work, derail work in progress, and most seriously, lead communication researchers simply to avoid certain kinds of research altogether.

The survey notes that many communication scholars avoid, or worse, abandon, research subjects because of copyright concerns, while others encounter resistance from publishers, editors, and university administrators.

I took a quick look at the charts presented on this survey, and I’m a bit surprised by what the numbers show. Only 17% of respondents said that they had faced resistance from a journal publisher to use copyrighted material without permission or payment for an academic article. Facing resistance from book publishers, only 19% said yes. When these respondents were asked whether or not they had to pay for material when they were sure that their use fell under fair use or another exemption, only 14% said yes, with 24% saying they had to get permission. This is interesting, considering that only 15% of respondents seek advice on fair use and copyright from lawyers in university counsels.

I’m a bit suspect of the language used in this survey, because if there is one thing we can be sure of when it comes to fair use it is that there is nothing we can be sure of when it comes to fair use. (This is one example of near-hyperbolic language in the survey.) The three numbers above, 17%, 19%, and 14% do not seem to me to be indicative of an apocalypse of creativity. What they do show is the need to educate communication scholars in intellectual property law–particularly copyright and fair use. In fact, what is truly needed is the education of creative individuals in all professions and fields. The survey seems to indicate this educational need:

The great majority of researchers are less than fully confident in their own knowledge of copyright, want to learn more, and often seek help to know how best to proceed when using copyrighted works. Nearly half of them rated their own understanding of copyright as fair (31%) or poor (12%). Only 17 percent rated their knowledge as excellent, although another 40 percent rated it as good.1 Those who have a fair or poor understanding are not generally satisfied with this and want to know more. Of this group (43%), 16 percent have a very strong and 45 percent have a moderately strong desire to know more about such copyright exemptions as fair use. Nineteen percent of all respondents say that they have had concern or anxiety when they have included unlicensed copyrighted work in their own published work.

I can definitely say this. There are lawyers–your truly included–who are never sure of what copyright and fair use protect and liberate. This survey is a good beginning, and hopefully one that will engender dialogue between communication scholars and copyright practitioners. I’m in.

The Survey is available here.


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