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Monday, November 28, 2005

Of Copyright Law and the Public Domain

I was going to make a post about my new-found awe with all things octopus (or octopodi/octopi, depending on your nationality), but I've decided there's something a bit more... hmm... important (?) for me to talk about.

If you go to my web page (no longer updated), and click on the "UNBSJ Stuff" link, and then click on "The 18th Century Periodical Press," you'll find a missing page.

There's a reason for this.

Earlier today, I received this e-mail:

"You are in violation of our copyright for images of
the Athenian Oracle. Merely citing your sources is not
adequate protection. You have no permission to use
these images.

You have 48 hours to respond."

This was sent to me from one Kathie Kemmerer, the person in charge of the web site www.18thcenturyarchive.org.

I was confused at this e-mail, but immediately took down the site and replied to the e-mail stating I had done so.

Why was I confused?

1. The images I had used were, in fact, from 18thcenturyarchive.org. In fact, I stated such on my web page itself, citing that page as one of my sources in a proper academic manner. I even mentioned the fact that the images were from the site. This tends to strike me as falling under the clause "fair use." Except fair use isn't really necessary due to point 2...

2. The Athenian Oracle was published in the 18th century. This means that it, and all the art contained therein, has been part of the public domain for almost as long as there has been copyright law. How can something be in the public domain, and yet subject to copyright, at the same time?

Well, I've been working on an essay for most of the day, during which I've reflected on the issue...

It occurs to me that what Ms. Kemmerer is probably trying to claim is rights over the digital reproduction of the Athenian Oracle emblem.

Unfortunately, this line of thought doesn't work. Not even by draconian U.S. copyright law (to which we in Canada are, sadly, bound via trade agreements) does this work. True, some bone-headed folk south of the border want to extend copyright over works to "forever minus one day," but luckily that isn't the case. According to the 1999 court case of the Bridgeman Library vs. the Corel Corporation, exact reproductions of public domain works are not subject to copyright.

The background of this case is that the Bridgeman Library had published photographic reproductions of a number of famous paintings of antiquity. Corel used these photographs for an educational CD-ROM. The library sued Corel.

Corel won because the court decided that "'slavish copying', although doubtless requiring technical skill and effort, does not qualify" as creative, and thus cannot be subject to copyright.

Hence, people are now supposed to be able to share digital images of beautiful pieces of art (made prior to 1920 or so) on their web-sites and not worry about threatening e-mails. Particularly if the web sites are educational ones (which get all kinds of leeway in terms of fair use clauses, which, again, aren't even necessary when you're dealing with public domain art.)

Except, you know, here I am. Getting threatening e-mails.

I know a little about copyright law, as I believe I've demonstrated. Many people with vaguely artistic inclinations (such as myself), or who find they disagree with the current highly prohibitive and Disney-pandering state of copyright laws (such as myself), can display a similar knowledge. So, why did I take the site down? Let's play multiple choice:

A. Getting a vaguely threatening e-mail from a complete stranger actually scared me a little, though I'm a bit embarassed to admit it.
B. The web page was for a course I took a couple years back, and as such, is now unnecessary, particularly since I'm no longer maintaining my web site per se.
C. I have no idea who Ms. Kemmerer is, or how much money she has available for any kind of a legal battle, but it's a good bet she has more resources available to her than I do.
D. I have better things to worry about right now, like my final paper for my American Poetry class, or continuing my struggle with introductory French.
E. All of the Above.

And as a bonus question: This entire situation, including my handling of it, has left something of a sour taste in my mouth. (T/F)

(I'll probably talk about octopuses next time. Octopodi. Whatever.)


Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 10:43 PM

+++++


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