As a self-professed geek with an unhealthy fascination with copyright, I am always on the lookout for new ways of engaging with others on the subject. So my interest was piqued when I heard about a graphic novel devoted entirely to copyright; what better way to capture imagination and interest than through the medium of comics?
Published online and on print by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University and available under a Creative Commons license, Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain has been compiled by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, all law scholars at Duke. The project received funding from the Rockefeller, MacArthur and Ford Foundations.
It has received glowing reports from creators and journalists alike, praising it for its simplified and easy to understand coverage of some of the complex issues in copyright faced by documentary filmmakers. But is it truly successful in what it has set out to achieve?
For me, the comic is in two parts. The first outlines the copyright minefield, in this case as experienced by documentary filmmakers, peppered throughout with real life horror stories of attempted rights clearances and filmmakers’ struggles. The second discusses copyright law and how it benefits creators, emphasising the importance and relative success of the fair use defence. Given the complexity of copyright law which necessitates fairly lengthy elaboration, it may have been better to have had two separate parts (perhaps in the style of a ‘to be continued..?’ storyline), as the second part relates more broadly to all forms of creator, not just the documentary filmmaker.
As a result, not only does the momentum of the story waiver somewhat, but the message is also to some extent mixed. Akiko the heroine is fighting a rights monster, and only a few pages later the guides are telling her how useful copyright is for creators. The illustrations unfortunately add to this confusion: the front cover depicts our heroine holding a copyright shield, yet her shield (a metaphor for protection) in the middle of the comic sports the words ‘fair use’ as she does battle with the rights monster.
To carry the metaphor, if the rights monster is the threat of litigation, then the shield of protection (the defence) would be fair use; however, with a shield sporting the copyright logo, this suggests that she is defending her own work against others who would want to use it against her will. For those readers not versed in the complexity of copyright law, this mixed metaphor is confusing and visually a bit odd.
Another element that struggles to come across effectively is the correlation between fair use and the public domain. It’s not easy to establish the meaning of ‘the public domain’ in this context, especially when many readers may automatically assume that it is synonymous to ‘on the Internet’. In copyright terminology, public domain means when copyright in a work has expired. Fair use, on the other hand, is a defence to a claim of copyright infringement. The utopian zoned landscape or ‘cultural environmentalism’ at the end of the comic seems to mix the two when in reality it is not so simplistic.
However, the story does drive home the point that fair use must be used or else lost. Creators and artists must know the weapons available to them and be able to take calculated risk decisions based on their rights. They should not be threatened by rights holders when copyright law itself makes provision for the types of things they want to be able to do.
Perhaps it is that copyright as a subject is at odds with the medium which treats it; graphic novels such as this may portray the world in black and white, whereas copyright and all that comes with it tends to be shades of grey. But in spite of these criticisms, the graphic novel is a noble stab at making copyright more accessible, equipping creators with a knowledge of the law that can be used to their advantage.
A word of warning though: the comic covers US law only, and despite the excellent facility to translate the comic into different languages, the law may be different in other jurisdictions.
Further Reading on Copyright
Copyright applies the same to digital as well as print, so there is not one single distinguishing text really – however, I find this book quite useful: Digital Copyright: law and practice, by Simon Stokes (3rd ed; Hart Publishing, 2009).
The UK Intellectual Property Office has plenty of information on copyright issues in general. My blog, Copyright for Education, is running a series on images and copyright and will cover Creative Commons too. Some comprehensive guidance on PDF which is useful is available here. Bear in mind that it is US-biased.
Aoki, K., Boyle, J. and Jenkins, J. (2006) Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain (Durham, North Carolina: Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University). < http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/>. Accessed 03 October 2011
“Law Professors Release Comic Book on Copyright and Documentary Film”, Duke Today, March 15 2006. < http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/comic_book.html>. Accessed 03 October 2011
“Comics and Copyright”, Duke Magazine, May/June 2006, <http://www.dukemagazine.duke.edu/dukemag/issues/050606/depgaz12.html>. Accessed 03 October 2011
Mangan, K. (2011) “Law Professor Created Comic Books in Crusade to Limit Copyright”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15 2011. < http://chronicle.com/article/Law-Professors-Legacy/127547/>. Accessed 03 October 2011