Two generally unrelated thoughts on changes to copyright

I don’t follow copyright/DMCA issues that closely, but there was apparently an important decision from some changes to interpretations to the law.  Here’s a link with the technical stuff. The two changes I’ve read about so far are it is now legal get around various copy-protection schemes on materials like movies for educational purposes, and it is also now legal (at least according this link) to “jailbreak” an iPhone.

My two thoughts:

First, Copyright law, always complex and mushy and interpretable, is widely misunderstood and/or ignored in academia.  It is by me.  Take eReserves, for example, something I was discussing with a colleague the other day in relation to course packs.  At EMU, eReserves is the library’s “electronic reserve” system that allows someone like me to put various copyright-protected materials “on reserve” in the form of PDFs that students can download for free.   Many institutions have such systems.  The advantage of eReserves for me is I can add and subtract readings whenever, including the middle of the term (that’s just flat-out impossible with a course pack), and “free” is obviously much cheaper than even the most inexpensive course pack.  But as I understand it, it is actually illegal to repeatedly make available for free some copyright-protected text via this system.  In other words, with essays I teach pretty much every term, like Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” I’m supposed to put that into a course pack so that the copyright is cleared and students pay the royalty.  Another example:  as I understand it, if I show a movie in a class, I’m technically supposed to pay the copyright holders of that film some sort of screening fee, unless I’m showing something that the university has already paid some sort of royalty on already.  (I may be very wrong about this one).

The point is this:  I don’t know anyone who treats eReserves this way, I wouldn’t even think of asking for permission to show a movie in a class, and I don’t really care about these potential copyright violations for admittedly mushy and ignorant reasons.  The way I figure it, no one is going to sue me over eReserves or showing a movie in a class or committing any other copyright crime; at worse, they are going to send me a “cease and desist” letter.  Instead of worrying about the legal ramifications of getting various permissions for use of these materials in my classes, I worry about how reading the things I assign might actually “teach” my students something.  Let the lawyers sort out the copyright violations.

Second, I have been thinking lately about jailbreaking my iPhone.  As most 3G users know, the new iPhone 4 operating system slows and/or crashes older phones.  Quite a bit, actually.  Eventually, I’ll get a new phone, though I am not entirely sure when.  On the “early-side,” maybe I’ll try to justify the iPhone 4 as some sort of Christmas present; on the “late-side,” maybe I’ll hold out for whatever is next (iPhone 5? iPhone 4S?), which, according to MacRumors (they say that the average “update” cycle for the iPhone is 218 days), would probably be sometime between about March and May 2011.  So in the meantime, I kind of feel like I have nothing to lose with attempting the various jailbreak options that are out there; heck, it might even help my older phone work “better.”

4 thoughts on “Two generally unrelated thoughts on changes to copyright”

  1. Steve,

    I agree that most of us ignore copyright concerns. Most of us have been able to as our classroom activities are not likely to trigger anyone’s radar about possible copyright infringements. However, that’s largely a local, read-only feature: as you say above, “I worry about how reading the things I assign might actually ‘teach’ my students something.” What happens, however, when you or your students want to publish your scholarly interpretations so that you can teach not only each other, but the field at large? How will you walk us through that critique and commentary (necessary components of lawful code-breaking) without engaging the audio-visual information – if indeed that is critical to the discussion? That, is now a read-write concern, and, unfortunately, that has not been a concern for most of us – until now.

    The new rulings allow us to break code in order to rip that material. They also communicate that such uses are apparently to understood as fair, since only a few uses are declared fair for code breaking. So, we are free to take as long as we make.
    But, are we allowed to share our work with audiences that transcend the immediate classroom? “College and university professors and … college and university film and media studies students” are covered (though, apparently, “media literacy” teachers and students are not permitted to rip access-protected DVD content unless they do so to make transformative documentaries or non-commercial video products for the purpose of criticism and/or commentary).

    Oh, and by the way, don’t try this with content on your Blu-Ray discs; ripping from Blu-Ray remains illegal.

    From what I’ve read so far, the language of the ruling does not speak to pedagogical applications that transcend the classroom – our scholarly work. In some ways, I feel as though the ruling treats my work as my neighbors do: you’re a teacher; it must be nice to have your summers off. In other words, if I’m not in the classroom, I must not be working, because what else is there?

    I have yet to read the full 262-page report, so I’m not completely certain what all it does and doesn’t allow. From what I have read, I think this ruling should direct our attentions toward copyright concerns not away from them – to ask us to question what we really need & what all we do or may have emerging needs or desires to do with audio-visual texts.

    This ruling should not lull us into a sense of complacency that our copyright concerns have been resolved.

    Legal rulings talk mostly about the “fair” part of “fair use.” However, I find that it is the “use” part of “fair use” that’s far more germane to our work: it asks what we are doing with our work, where our work travels, and what it asks others to do with it. That’s writing. That’s rhetoric. That’s us.

  2. Yeah, that’s not even the technical stuff. That’s a summary of the technical stuff. Complex, mushy, interpretable, widely misunderstood, ignored: yes, all of the above. For me, that points to the first big implication of this ruling: we have to keep engaging fair use in our curricula. Our students need to see the problems at issue here. They need to know that until this ruling was made, and as Bump points out perhaps even afterward, what we were doing was illegal. They need to know the basics of copyright and fair use, even if their knowledge is necessarily limited because of its’ complexity.

    Far more importantly than sanctioned remix for students: the rulings make infrastructures possible. This cuts across all the technologies affected. As I read it, there’s now nothing stopping a bunch of geeks from setting up their own software systems to manage “unauthorized” apps on mobile devices–whereas beforehand, such efforts could be cease-and-desisted out of existence. University support staff can now teach instructors how to rip, mix, and burn. Accessibility services can help folks use ebooks which aren’t properly designed (e.g. everything on the Kindle). Etcetera. Hopefully these changes will help shift the connotations of these uses from “ripping” and “jailbreaking” to something which reflects their now-sanctioned character.

  3. I agree with both of you, of course. Still, the way I will probably continue to conduct myself in these matters will be to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Probably not “right,” but a lot easier….

    And of course I’ve added “jailbreak” to my to do list.

  4. Hi Steve! Thanks for posting this. I’m glad to see people are interested in the new DMCA exemptions.

    Since I participated in the DC hearings, I thought you might find my recent blog post – summarizing my (modest) interpretation of the new exemption on circumventing CSS encrypted DVDs, of small interest. I did not participate in the jailbreaking arguments – but that’s interesting too.

    Anyway, my blog post is also in the form of a 6 page white paper which I hope will be shared.

    The exemptions are use-it-or-lose it, in that, they last for three year increments (in this case two years because they were issued late) and always need to be justified at each hearing. The next hearings are in 2012.

    I see the new DVD exemption as a huge victory for the educational/noncommerical stakeholders. My reasons are explained in the paper/post, but it mainly has to do with where we came from since 2006, and the counter-arguments that were against us.

    Thanks for again for keeping your blog and for posting on this issue!


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