The Copyright Conundrum: Breaking It Down to Basics
By Julie Thomas, Special Collections and University Archives

Who really understands all the laws and issues involved with copyright? If the many layers and nuances of copyright rules confuse you, rest assured that you are not alone. Since the enactment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, even the lawyers and judiciary who are entrusted with enforcing and interpreting the laws are figuring it out on a case-by-case basis.

I was fortunate enough to attend the OCLC Western workshop on Basic Copyright Management for Digital Materials on April 9 th and began to see light at the end of the tunnel. Here are the two most important pieces of information I walked away with: (1) copyright compliance is really all about risk management, and (2) contracts and licenses always trump copyright law. Whether you are photocopying large portions of a book under the Fair Use Statute (17 USC 107) or publishing digital images on your website, you have to ask yourself “What are the worst possible consequences?” if you are deemed a copyright infringer. Those risks can include litigation or threat of litigation, loss of goodwill or reputation, as well as decreased managerial efficiency. As Dirty Harry famously stated, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

If you are neither punky nor lucky, there are steps you can take to protect yourself:

Adopt a copyright policy and make employees aware of it

The workshop presenter also recommended that end users be controlled and everyone should familiarize themselves with the myriad copyright laws. But, I don’t think the former is possible and the latter is why we pay attorneys the big bucks. Here in SCUA we have Deeds of Gift that transfer all titles and rights of donated items to CSUS, so if we are in violation of the law we are considered “innocent infringers.” See how that works?

By the time the courts figure out the legal perimeters of the DCMA and Fair Use statute, Congress will pass a slew of ambiguous new copyright laws. In the meantime, I’m happy to share what little knowledge I gained at the workshop with anyone who has more questions about copyright in the 21 st millennium. As I’m only lucky in love and parking, I prefer to reduce my risks by crossing all the “T’s” and dotting all the “I’s” on a nice, neat contract or license agreement. Are you feeling lucky?