Good Readings on Copyright for a Digital History Class?
April 29, 2009 2:54 PM   Subscribe

What are some good readings on copyright law and practice for a graduate level digital history class?

I am teaching a course on digital history this quarter. It is my first time teaching the class and I am having a blast but also finding it a bit of challenge to hit all the topics I want to emphasize in a 10 week college quarter. Next week I want to assign a set of readings around the question "What is Copyright?" I want the students to understand basic copyright law, sure, but what I really want are some provocative, engaging readings about how the digital realm has influenced copyright law, how copyright is influencing scholarship and commerce, and especially some of the non-commercial responses, things like Creative Commons.

So what should I have my students read? What websites should they visit? Are there articles or blog posts online that I could direct my students to?

posted by LarryC to Education (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
For a good, brief primer on the issues (or any legal issue) the Nutshell Series is pretty good. It's not going to be primarily focused on digital, but it will cover it. And the nutshell treatment on the areas you like could be good short readings. You could skip all the stuff you don't want to address.

There are probably more books focused on digital copyright issues. But of the books I am aware of about copyright law, that is the one I think could be useful for concise explanations of history and substance of the law.
posted by dios at 3:02 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, Dios, that is useful. I am looking to complement this sort of information with articles that engage the idea of copyright, especially as it is applied online. A good summary of Disney and Sonny Bono working to extend copyright protections, for example.
posted by LarryC at 3:10 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: Cory Doctorow is, y'know, Cory Doctorow, but the syllabus for his USC class on copyright is fairly decent, and Chapter six of Lessig's Free Culture [PDF] is not a bad summary of early history (focusing, rightly, on Donaldson v. Beckett, while the first chapters deal with Disney and recorded music. Written from a non-neutral perspective, of course.
posted by holgate at 3:21 PM on April 29, 2009

This paper [.pdf] looks interesting and informative.

One thing I would be cautious of is that so much of the writing on digital copyright is written to advocate changes and agenda driven. I'm very suspicious of writing on the subject. I would definitely try to find neutral sources.
posted by dios at 3:21 PM on April 29, 2009

And, no offense to holgate, what he just directed you to is exactly what I am talking about.
posted by dios at 3:21 PM on April 29, 2009

but what I really want are some provocative, engaging readings about how the digital realm has influenced copyright law

Excerpts from Napster, Sony, etc. litigation. They don't have the historical appeal that some other readings may have (Sony excepted), but in terms of black-letter copyright law and how courts analyze it you're not going to beat the SCOTUS. Any advocacy or non-legal appeals will usually be in the dissents; most of the court seems comfortable with copyright as is.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:24 PM on April 29, 2009

I've found Siva Vaudyanathan's Copyrights and Copywrongs to be quite useful in courses before, despite it being a bit old at this point. He summarizes a lot of stuff in a well-written and engaging manner.
posted by googly at 3:35 PM on April 29, 2009

Oops, hit post too soon. You may especially want to look at the last chapter "The Digital Moment: The End of Copyright?" Its good on its own, but it also presents an example of how things looked in 2001.
posted by googly at 3:39 PM on April 29, 2009

I don't have anything specific to recommend since all the copyright books I have read are kind of more practical and directly related to my industry, but I too would be wary of any of the "copyleft/free culture" and agenda driven books. I am very interested in copyright issues since I deal with them every day, and I find that a lot of times when I read things like Cory Doctorow the perspective that people like him have is really... detached from reality and sometimes bordering on bizarre.

I honestly hope someone can point to some neutral sources because I would be interested in reading them too. I'm tired of hearing about how copyright is destroying everything sacred and holy from people whose main exposure to IP issues is the RIAA suing grandmas. There is a lot more to copyright than that.
posted by bradbane at 4:15 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: Stanford has a lot of good info about copyright and fair use.
posted by rtha at 4:33 PM on April 29, 2009

Not digital at all, but it might be interesting to have your students take a look at some portion of Meredith McGill's book on the early American culture of reprinting. The marketing materials for the book don't talk much about copyright, but it's all about what information exchange was like before regularized copyright in this country, and could be extrapolated upon to provide an interesting historical perspective on what it might be like in the future.
posted by dizziest at 5:06 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: I really enjoyed reading the essays that were mostly reprinted in Cory Doctorow's book Content. You can also download the book for free here. James Grimmelmann (a fellow MeFite) talks a lot about law and policy concerning digital content and his essays on the Google Books settlement are some of the best around. You can find PDFs of a few here.

Cory can be a little utopian but coming from a library perspective, the way he looks at things is often more "real world" in our culture [one predicated on sharing as much as possible as legally as possible] than the crazy talk that I see coming from publishers and agencies like the MPAA and RIAA. Everyone has to pick a side, I'd try to find readings on both/all sides for students.
posted by jessamyn at 5:13 PM on April 29, 2009

Lawrence Lessig?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:03 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the Helprin editorial, the Lessig-instigated wiki rebuttal (his site is apparently down right now, so no working link), and the subsequent Helprin book (Digital Barbarism) that just came out this week.

If you're really looking to portray all sides of the argument...
posted by charmcityblues at 7:54 PM on April 29, 2009

If you want a version of the story of the (Sunny Bono) Copyright Term Extension Act, you can do worse than to check out Lessig's book Free Culture. (He argued the Supreme Court case opposing it -- and lost.)

More than that law, though, you'll probably want to focus on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (17 USC ss 512, 1201 et seq.) This is dense, but it's where the action is. The DMCA and its safe harbor provisions really move in the online sphere (the Viacom v. YouTube suit entirely turns on it.)

I'm guessing this class doesn't presuppose any coursework in law, but it might be worthwhile to take a brief look at some of the relevant caselaw. Napster really got the ball rolling (239 F.3d 1004). Judge Posner's opinion in In re Aimster Copyright Litigation (334 F.3d 643) is a good roundup, and Sony (the Betamax case, 464 U.S. 417) is probably your canonical cite. The MGM v. Grokster Supreme Court case (545 U.S. 913) follows neatly from Sony, and is firmly within the digital era (2005, if memory serves.) These are lengthy cases, and would probably need some editing down. (If you just google the string of numbers following each case, you should be able to find freely available versions of all these online.)

A lot of the content on digital copyright (in both popular pieces and legal academia) tends to come at it from a strong ideological backing. That said, Jonathan Zittrain's "The Future of the Internet" might be of interest with that caveat. Tim Wu wrote a paper along these lines called "Copyright's Communications Policy" that deals with copyright on the internet, again with a bit of a tilt.

Sounds like a fun class, all in all.
posted by theoddball at 7:54 PM on April 29, 2009

Not a reading, but a video that managed to spark interest/discussion in my copyright class: A Fair(y) Use Tale. It's fun, but explains the basics of copyright with clips from films by everyone's favorite copyright villain, Disney! As one of my favorite professors put it. . . the mouse always wins.
posted by LolaCola at 8:54 PM on April 29, 2009

The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem is a great essay that worked well in my class to get students thinking about creativity and copyright.

This previous question has some relevant questions, even though it focuses specifically on music.
posted by umbĂș at 6:42 AM on April 30, 2009

I agree with those above who said look at the cases. The cases set out what the law is. And it is a good intellectual exercise to read what the courts have said and then allow the students to think about whether they have a problem with it.

Everyone has to pick a side, I'd try to find readings on both/all sides for students.

I got to disagree with jessamyn here. When you are learning about copyright law, there does not have to be a side. There are two different issues here, I guess. Do you want to teach your students about what the law is, how it developed, what it covers, etc.? Or do you want your students to be involved in a theoretical debate about what copyright should cover?

I would personally think the more productive teaching method would be to go with the first path and have them read neutral explanations and the cases so they understand what the law is. Then allow the students to take that knowledge and develop views on their own. By having them read this polemical slanted stuff from people who are debating what copyright should cover, then you are doing nothing more than spoon feeding them two ways for them to think and forcing them to choose one or the other. And I would also tell you this: there is a lot about copyright law that gets confused and lost when the polemicists attempt to cast the argument as one of "freedom and sharing" vs. evil corporate RIAA profiteering.

Then again, I come from the school that the worst thing in the world pedagogically is trying to teach students what to think as opposed to allowing them to learn how to think on their own and come to their own opinions about how it should apply. Especially if your goal is to spend just a short amount of time to learn "what is copyright and how it applies" as you said in your question, as opposed to "what copyright should be because of my p.o.v."
posted by dios at 8:24 AM on April 30, 2009

Best answer: By the way, I came back to this thread because I came across an article on SSRN that I think does a very good job at outlining the basics of copyright law (what it is, why we have it, etc.) and then raising the issues in the digital world. The authors present it in a viewpoint neutral way that set out the competing issues and then talks about where we appear to be headed. By not advocating a position, I think it makes a good teaching tool because after reading it, I think a student would have the tools to make reasoned views about the debates instead of just making bumper-sticker level thoughts based on some polemical piece.
posted by dios at 8:35 AM on April 30, 2009

Best answer: In terms of the basic resources, some are (stating the obvious), the U.S. Copyright Office, including their faq, Cornell's page on copyright, and their very useful public domain chart , UC page , Yale's Liblicense, the Copyright Website , and the American Association of Museums factsheet on music licensing for museums .
posted by gudrun at 12:10 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: I come from the school that the worst thing in the world pedagogically is trying to teach students what to think as opposed to allowing them to learn how to think on their own

As do I. Thanks everyone for lots of great suggestions. I am going to lead off with the Helprin editorial, go next to the SSRN article that Dios linked, then give them some Doctrow, Lessig, and Creative Commons.
posted by LarryC at 9:21 PM on April 30, 2009

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