Supreme Court Case Highlights Challenges of Copyright
June 29, 2011
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. -- Understanding the ins and outs of copyright laws can be as confusing
as navigating a continually shifting maze. With the U.S. Supreme Court debating legislation
on copyright issues this summer, Illinois Wesleyan librarians shed light on the challenges
of upholding copyright in a digital world.
Government works like the Constitution
remain in the public domain.
"We live in a copy-and-paste society," said University Librarian Karen Schmidt, who
oversees copyright compliance at the University. "The inclination in the public is
to say, 'I found it on the Internet, so it must be okay.' There are an incredible
number of resources on the web, but that amazing access also makes it foggy to understand
what the obligations are for the ethical use of information."
Copyrights can cover anything from the text of the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to a painting by Kandinsky or a song from a Broadway musical. Use or reproduction
of a copyrighted item without permission of the owner is illegal. Copyrights generally
lapse 70 years after death of the creator, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
Once the copyright expires, the work enters what is called "public domain," meaning
anyone can reproduce the work without seeking permission.
"Works that are in public domain have either gone out of copyright or may have always
been available to the public, such as government documents which are produced with
public money," said Schmidt, citing examples such as a composition by Beethoven or
a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
This summer's court case will review the U.S. policy on public domain when it comes
to some foreign works. The case, Golan v. Holder, is revisiting the Uruguay Round
Agreements Act of 1994, which pulled many items generated in foreign countries from
public domain in America, and placed them under copyright restrictions. "It is a question
of how the U.S. operates within international copyright law," said Schmidt. "Copyright
can have a whole, big murky area out there, and the more we digitize, the murkier
At Illinois Wesleyan, as at universities all over the world, the Internet has opened
up countless resources for students with the click of a mouse, said Schmidt, though
she added that students who properly cite the sources they use in a research paper
never have to deal with copyright issues. She noted putting a picture of Picasso's
"Gunerica" in a paper or PowerPoint presentation for class generally does not violate
copyright. "The question arises when the image becomes available for others," she
Alfred Hitchcock's movie 39 Steps
is now in public domain.
One of the roles of The Ames Library is to help students understand how copyright
affects their research and the original works they create. "The moment you have written
or produced or created something, you have copyright over it," said Schmidt.
If a student's work is published in a journal or posted to the Internet, copyright
comes into play. The Ames Library has an online collection known as Digital Commons that posts everything from University committee reports to student papers that appear
at the annual John Wesley Powell Conference on campus. "Digital Commons is fully searchable
on Google and gets very high hit rates," said Schmidt. "So we want to make sure we
have permission to use any copyrighted material embedded in the document, such as
images." She added that students whose pieces are chosen for Digital Commons work
with library faculty to understand the importance of copyright and how to obtain permission
IWU Scholarly Communications Librarian Stephanie Davis-Kahl believes Digital Commons
creates an opportunity to educate students of their rights when it comes to copyright.
"It's important for students to understand that no matter what they create -- whether
a paper, a piece of music or a drawing on a napkin -- they are the copyright owner.
There is nothing special they need to do to assert that copyright," she said. When
the University posts a work on Digital Commons, it is asking students for permission
to place their work on the Internet. "I think it is compelling to those students to
see that we are saying, "this is yours and you are giving us permission,'" Davis-Kahl
The majority of the nearly 7,300 documents on Digital Commons are student-generated
works, said Davis-Kahl, who assists students in gaining permission or finding alternatives
if they confront copyrighted materials. "Copyrights can vary depending upon who owns
the image or work, and what they require for permission," she said. While some copyrights
demand artists and scholars be paid for the reproduction of their work, others might
only request the work be attributed to them. "The important step is getting permission,"
said Davis-Kahl.Faculty can face the same problems when getting their work published,
said Schmidt. "Scholarly publishers are going to assure that the researcher has obtained
copyright permission, so they will not be sued when they publish your work," she said.
Last year, Schmidt helped Professor and Director of Greek and Roman Studies Nancy
Sultan find images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her article "Jacqueline Kennedy
& the Classical Ideal." "Without the help of Karen Schmidt, I would have gone crazy
trying to get permissions for all the images I used," said Sultan, who found many
publishers simply would not respond to repeated requests. "In one case, where the
image belonged to Valentino, we even called their headquarters in Italy and still
got nowhere," she said.
Students who enter works in the Illinois Wesleyan John Wesley Powell Conference can
opt to have their work posted on Digital Commons.
Schmidt often advises students to start by assuming works are copyrighted. "I would
caution all students to consider the material they are working with as copyrighted
material unless they know otherwise," she said, adding students can find a wealth
of public domain documents at websites such as Archive.org and the Library of Congress.
"There are literally millions of documents now in the public domain, and more coming
every day," she said.
Davis-Kahl understands that copyright can be frustrating for students, but encourages
them to persevere. "The idea is that you don't want to make a decision for somebody,"
she said. "It's all about author rights. The author or creator has the right to decide
how his or her work to be used, reused, distributed and built upon. We are trying
to instill in students the concept that there are ways to share your work, and to
use other people's work in an ethical manner."
Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960