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Copyright: a Hot Mess

A few weeks ago I was talking with a dear comrade about copyright.  He wanted my professional opinion on the website History is a Weapon, and their posting of the full text of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  In short, the folks who run the website got enthusiastic permission from Zinn to put it up, but he’s since died and the book’s publisher, HarperCollins, has gotten their panties in a bundle over it, and did I think that the website would ultimately be able to keep the text up?

My answer: maybe.

Most people have some vague idea that old stuff is in the public domain, and therefore anyone can do pretty much whatever they want with it.  Yes, that’s true, but there are varying definitions of “old” (in general, before 1923), and things with newer creation dates have more and more complicated copyright restrictions, to the point that it’ll be a good long time before anything created in the past ten years hits public domain.  And considering how protective corporations are of what they consider their intellectual property, we will probably see future laws passed to further extend the life of current copyrights.

Anyway, one of the best tools I’ve found for figuring out if something in the U.S. is still under copyright is this handy — if rather long — chart from Cornell.  According to this chart, Zinn’s History, for example, will first hit public domain in 2080, at best.

Of course, in History is a Weapon’s case, that’s not the issue.  Copyright infringement is a civil matter, which means it’s up to the copyright holder to take legal action against those who step on their toes.  Unfortunately, this means that the bigger dog usually wins, no matter what side they are on or whether they are right or wrong, because court cases are expensive and long.

So, there’s my maybe.  History is a Weapon will probably defy the stop and desist orders as long as they can maintain their web presence, and they will probably spend a lot of time in court.  Then, they’ll either be able to prove that Zinn gave them permission to use his work and hope for a not unsympathetic judge, or they won’t, or they might have to give up for lack of resources.  That’s often the strategy of both the state and large corporations, especially when they suspect they will not otherwise win — outlast their opponents, make their lives difficult and costly, in hopes that they’ll give up.

About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable mid-career librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

5 comments on “Copyright: a Hot Mess

  1. History Is A Weapon
    February 18, 2013

    Well, we’re pretty crazy and resourceful, so there’s also that. But one of the (many, many) problems with copyright is that we’ve gotten cease and desist orders for works that are in the public domain AND from people who claim ownership of public domain work that we can’t even fathom why they think they’d have the rights to it anyway (e.g., they aren’t related to the original author or in publishing, it sounds like they just hired a lawyer and were trying to bully us).
    What gives us hope is that so many people have written in and offered support, from teachers and librarians willing to write letters on our behalf, to lawyers offering to take our case pro bono if we feel threatened. And that’s what we’re really counting on, because one of Zinn’s most important lessons (along with many of the other authors and activists we feature on the site) is that if people unite, we can resist entrenched power. And we hope if shit goes down, all the shipwrecked librarians join us in the fight. We’ll need all the help we can get.

    • oneofthelibrarians
      February 18, 2013

      ohai! Thanks for the note.

      Yeah, that was a issue I’m aware about, but didn’t get into here for fear of making the post a gazillion words long. A few musicians, for example, have also had large record labels send them stop & desists and claim that they [the record label] hold the rights to songs that small-time musicians self-produced. Usually when those songs have gotten popular and therefor profitable. Fuck that noise.

  2. Pingback: Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire, or, Copyright Shitfuckery | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2013 by in Copyright, Legal, The Commons and tagged , , , .

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