Thursday, August 6, 2009


You'll notice that I write a lot about copyright issues here. Part of that's because it's important to me for the work I do at the writing center, which includes some work facilitating the transition to a Creative Commons structure for our educational materials. This is bringing us in line with the draft Washington State technology plan for higher ed, which includes more "open source" materials for classrooms and students.

Which brings us back to copyright.

I'm not a copyright expert, but one of the things I have to do everyday is evaluate how something we're doing falls within the spectrum of "fair use". Last weekend at the writer's conference it came to my attention in conversations with others how poorly-understood fair use and copyright law is. The laws are byzantine and the things you most want defined aren't, or rather they are defined by a dizzying array of legal precedents and caselaw. So we need tools to help us.

Are your derivative works or inspired critiques going to run you afoul of US law? Don't ask me, ask the experts. When I have a question I can't answer from native knowledge and experience (and sometimes even then) I go to the following sources, which I now share with you, my fellow writers...

The Copyright Advisory Network tracks and actively participates in discussions of copyright law. "The purpose of this site is to encourage librarians to discuss copyright concerns and seek feedback and advice from fellow librarians and copyright specialists. The Network is sponsored by the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy."

The Fair Use Evaluator is and other tools are available from the American Library Association offering helpful advice on evaluating of the murky issues of fair-use. Neither of these sites are going to provide you ironclad legal opinions. They are a part of doing what is legally known as "due diligence" when you are stepping into unfamiliar territory.

Will it keep people from suing you? Maybe, maybe not. Nothing will provide you with Teflon coating, but you can and should always do your best to limit your exposure.

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