The Trouble With Teaching Copyright

I’ve been teaching copyright as a part of my computers curriculum for a couple of years now.  I think it’s important that students have some understanding not only of their own rights as creators of intellectual property, but also of the rights of others to control and profit from their creations.  Thanks to information technology, it’s an uphill battle.  On the Freakonomics blog Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman note this:

“An increasing number of young people — the so-called ‘Digital Natives’ — operate within an online environment in which they encounter norms and practices based around a freer environment for experiencing, sharing, and re-using content versus what the formal rules of copyright allow. Put more simply, the expectations of the Digital Natives, evidenced by their actual behavior online, are often at odds with the copyright law. And the collision between online culture and copyright is likely to have great salience for the Digital Natives — a group that values online freedom, both to consume and to create.”

Then stories like this ridiculous lawsuit make it worse.  (CliffsNotes version: The estate of William Faulkner [who died in 1962] is suing Woody Allen for borrowing a line from “Requiem for a Nun” in his movie, “Midnight in Paris.”)  It’s very difficult to explain to students with a straight face why Woody Allen should have to pay a licensing fee to Faulkner’s heirs to use nine words in an unrelated movie that almost certainly will have no impact on book sales.

It’s also very difficult to give a logical reason why waiters and waitresses in Red Lobster can’t sing Happy Birthday to customers without paying the Warner Music Group:

Jerry Brito says it best in “Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess“:

“Whatever your philosophical position, if you are skeptical of government power, you should likewise be skeptical of the copyright system that has developed over the last century. That is, not necessarily skeptical of copyright in theory, but of the actual system that Congress has created and that it continues to expand.”

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