For Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the U.S. Copyright Office

23Nov06

Yes, copyright policy is seriously out of balance, and there’s rarely reason to be hopeful. But yesterday the forces for truth & righteousness got a nice victory: the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that we film & media educators can legally exercise our fair use rights! As a quick recap for those just joining our story, U.S. copyright has a vital loophole called “fair use,” which allows people to make partial copies of copyrighted materials without permission, for uses like parody, archiving, critical commentary, and education; however the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) includes an anti-circumvention measure, disallowing users to override copy-protection mechanisms (like on DVDs or software) even for fair uses. This means you cannot legally make backups of DVDs you own, take clips from DVDs for making parodies or critical video work, or make clips from DVDs to use for teaching, despite these all being fair uses. However, this last restriction was lifted yesterday after being added to a list of exemptions permitted by the Copyright Office:

Audiovisual works included in the educational library of a college or university’s film or media studies department, when circumvention is accomplished for the purpose of making compilations of portions of those works for educational use in the classroom by media studies or film professors.

While this allowance is quite narrow, only applying to a small group of people & practices (but clearly impacting the thousands of students who take such courses), I am hopeful that it represents a positive step forward in a few key ways.

First, it’s the only exemption that has applied to DVDs, which is crucial because Hollywood & the DVD industry have been trying to outlaw the decryption software for copying DVDs – but if the copyright office has created a category of DVD copying that is legal, then the tools are legitimized, if only for narrow uses. Second, a more technical point: the exemption process only allows the Copyright Office to provide exemptions for classes of works (like software for obsolete systems), rather than specific uses. This ruling & its explanation opens the door for the Copyright Office to exempt particular uses (like educational classroom use), which could set a precedent for arguing a wider range of fair uses regardless of class. Finally, the power of precedent in policy and legal ruling is huge – this exemption codifies one specific fair use, and sets a precedent for setting policy in favor of users over copyright owners. Thus while I’m excited for legalizing (some of) my own professional activities, I hope that this ruling opens the door to legitimizing other uses and practices that have been criminalized by the copyright cops over the past decade.

One additional giving of thanks – the reason this exemption was even considered was because of the huge efforts of Peter Decherney and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania who filed the request & argued for it effectively. Peter and I are working together on a committee to articulate some fair use guidelines for Society for Cinema and Media Studies members. Thanks to Peter’s hard work, we’ll actually have something positive & hopeful to report to the organization at the March meeting in Chicago!

Back to football & turkey – happy Thanksgiving!

Update: just a few links to other blogs offering commentary on this ruling.



One Response to “For Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the U.S. Copyright Office”


  1. 1 Convergence Culture Consortium (C3@MIT)

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