Dangerous Little Knowledge

Not surprisingly, friends contact me from time to time with copyright-related questions. I’m careful not to give definitive answers to most of these, but I can usually point them in the right direction toward a solution.  Very recently, a dear friend (let’s call her Sarah) asked my advice regarding an email she received from a photographer who demanded removal of an image from her blog as well as a substantial fee for damages.  Sarah is college educated, a Gen-Xer, an artist herself, wicked smart, talented, and very respectful of people in general, let alone other creators.  I would characterize her as among the last people who would knowingly infringe a fellow artist’s copyrights.

Sarah considers her blog educational and non-commercial, and she credited the photographer. These factors led her to assume her posting the photo was a “fair use,”  and the mistakes she made are consistent with the kind of questions and assumptions I hear all time.  Real copyright experts may have another view, but it seems to me that the non-commercial thing is among the most common mistakes made when it comes to assuming a use is fair. In reality, commercial or non-commercial use of a work is is not necessarily dispositive (as the lawyers say) when determining whether or not a use would be judged fair. Setting aside the question of the photographer’s award demand — I can’t comment on whether or not it was in line with common practices among visual artists —  I was sorry to tell Sarah that her use was almost certainly an infringement. It only took her doing a bit of research to realize that fair use is a very specific component of copyright law that requires a federal court to weigh four factors in order to reach a conclusion.

What I find interesting, though, is that while I have been associated with originators and users of creative media my entire life, until Web 2.0 came along, I don’t remember people making decisions to use works based solely on what they thought they understood about copyright.  Put another way, I am not surprised Sarah misunderstood fair use so much as I am curious as to how the misinformation got into her head in the first place to the extent that she honestly believed she was on solid ground.  Because I bet her confusion is quite common.  Moreover, I suspect that so much misunderstanding about copyright is aggravated by both the design of the Web and even by the din of the copyright debates in the blogosphere. Not only does an interface like Google image search make potential infringement just a little too easy, but it also isn’t helpful to have a constant drumbeat of headlines written by entities with an interest in weakening copyright.

Lingo is catchy. We hear a unique term, assume we know what it means, then misapply it and spread the gospel. I used to see this a lot in video post production whenever a producer got hold of a new expression he thought he understood. Similarly, I suspect there’s so much chatter about copyright issues swarming around the Internet today, that terms like fair use seep into public consciousness; and then intelligent, thoughtful people like Sarah make perfectly reasonable, yet entirely false, assumptions about what the term means or how the principle is actually applied.  A clear case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

And of course, it’s not just copyright; it’s anything. The wealth of “content” out there doesn’t always make us more informed, but it can make us think we’re informed, sometimes just enough to get us into trouble.  Because it’s one thing to have an opinion about a subject like copyright, but another thing to act on the assumption that you can be your own attorney, which is no more advisable than, say, using WebMD to diagnose the presentation of some new symptom.

Let me pause and write in the imperative for a moment by way of what public service I may offer:

If you have to imagine a fair use argument, then a case for infringement by the rights holder may exist.  Unless you have really researched fair use and you are legally and/or  financially prepared to defend your use, don’t assume you know what you’re doing. Odds are you don’t. There are no bright line rules when judging fair use.  Plus, if you’re just writing a blog and need an image, there are probably better and clearly legal options like Getty Images free embed service. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with asking the rights holder for permission. He just might say yes.

Of course, the argument from the anti-copyright crowd might be that Sarah’s experience makes a good reason to “expand” fair use in the digital age.  For instance, readers may be generally aware of the Internet industry’s proposal to  “export” U.S. fair use principles through fair trade agreements despite the fact that our trading partners have radically different legal systems, and none has our First Amendment. I bring this up to illustrate the point that I believe this industry continues to trade on the populist tactic of oversimplifying legal frameworks in order to advance its own agenda.

And this goes back to what I meant when I said that the design of the web as we know it adds to the confusion of general users as to what’s fair and what’s infringing.  After all, the image is right there on Google image search.  Why not right click, copy, and paste into a blog, etc.? Yes, that’s certainly a paradigm Google et al want to promote, but let me cut to the chase here:  if you’re an individual with mere mortal resources rather than billions of dollars and a phalanx of attorneys, taking the “infringe now, apologize and maybe pay later” approach of Silicon Valley corporations is probably a bad strategy.

Meanwhile certain experts may convince users that they’re on solid ground.  For instance, fair use scholar Peter Jaszi, in his testimony before Congress in January 2014, stated the following:

“Fair use, one might say, is like a muscle – it will grow in strength if it is exercised, and atrophy if it is not. But, by the same token, fair use is hardly unusual or exotic today. Everyone who makes culture or participates in the innovation economy relies on fair use routinely – whether they recognize it or not.”

I don’t presume to criticize Jaszi’s scholarship; I’m not remotely qualified to do so. But to the ears of fellow laymen, statements like this can be interpreted as permission to push the boundaries of fair use, which may be particularly hazardous if one has not at least researched the basic principles in the first place. High-level theory, debate, testimony, and discussion in the halls of academia do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of the law as it is currently applied.

Add to all that the massive volume of un-scholarly blogs, editorials, and PR messages aimed at weakening one facet of copyright or another, and confusion is likely to be the rule rather than the exception.  Each individual should do the research and decide for herself which among the many proposals on copyright seem thoughtful and innovative and which are serving vested interests. In the meantime, confusion leads to infringement claims, which can lead to damages, which pisses people off who otherwise respect copyrights. And in this sense, all the Sarahs out there become a bit like cannon fodder in a larger battle being waged by billion-dollar corporations.

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