Fun and Games with Copyright

This seems to be a week for confessions in the blog: I have already come out as a slash writer, one who tampers with the high cannon no less; I should also confess that I am an Eagle Scout. This is not exactly the most common combination of backgrounds and identities. (I use the present tense because officially, once you earn Eagle, it is something you carry with you the rest of your life, even though I haven't really done anything with Scouting in several decades now.) Scouting was a value part of my life: I taught for the first time when I was asked to lead classes for various merit badges for my troop, including classes in photography (which ended up centering on cinema) and in Theater (which allowed me to script and direct plays.) I can still recite the scout oath and still try to follow much of its standards. I have had more difficulty in recent years by the way the organization has gone to court to try to block membership to gay scoutmasters and scouts. I also lost some more respect for the organization when I read recently about a project conducted by the Boy Scouts of Los Angeles in association with the Motion Picture Association of America which seems designed to indoctrinate the youth into a particular ideological perspective on copyright and intellectual property. us-scouts-copyright-lg.jpg

My MIT colleague David Thorburn has shared with me the following excerpt from a recent story in the New York Times:

The 52,000 Boy Scouts in Los Angeles have a new virtue to strive for: respect for copyrights. In return for learning about the harms of downloading pirated movies and music, they will be awarded an activity patch showing a film reel, a music CD and the international copyright symbol, a "C" enclosed in a circle, The Associated Press reported. By means of a curriculum devised by the movie industry, the Scouts will be instructed in basic copyright law and learn to identify five types of copyrighted works and three ways that copyrighted materials may be stolen. In addition, they must choose an activity from a list that includes visiting a movie studio to see how many people may be harmed by film piracy, and creating public services announcements urging others not to steal music or movies. "Working with the Boy Scouts of Los Angeles, we have a real opportunity to educate a new generation about how movies are made, why they are valuable and hopefully change attitudes about intellectual property.

A little research found the actual curriculum on the web and not surprisingly, it makes no mention of the role of fair use as a balance for the more extreme assertions of intellectual property control being promoted by the film industry. Here are some excerpts:

Intellectual property is no different than physical property. Stealing intellectual property that is copyrighted is against the law and can have serious consequences. Movies, music, games, and software are forms of intellectual property that are usually copyrighted to protect the people who make them.

Some of the required activities include:

Demonstrate your knowledge of the following:

a. What is copyright?

b.Why do copyrights matter?

c.Identify five different types of copyrighted works (two of which may be your own). For each, give the author/creator and the date the work was copyrighted.

d. name three ways copyrighted works may be taken.

Visit a video sharing network or peer to peer website and identify which materials are copyrighted and which aren't.

Go to a movie and stay through all the credits. Tell you counselor/or scout leader who you think, in addition to the main actors and actresses, would be hurt if the film was stolen?

Keep in mind, of course, that the Boy Scouts of America does not yet offer a Media Literacy merit badge -- though the Girl Scouts do. There is a Communications badge which is required for Eagle but it's emphasis is on interpersonal communications and public speaking. And there is an optional Cinematography merit badge which focuses entirely on the filmmaking technology and process.

The scouts who were asked to participate in this program, then, are given no instruction which might speak to the structure of the American entertainment industry, the corporate interests which shape the media we consume, the role of participatory culture in contemporary society, or the forms of appropriation and parody which might be protected under Fair Use provisions.

Of course, when I was in the Scouts, there was a specific provision which prohibited you from engaging in partisan political activities while wearing the uniform. Boy Scouts were encouraged to promote citizenship in the abstract sense, including helping to get people to vote, but they were not to take sides on public policies while acting as Scouts. I have been trying to find this policy on the web but so far, have not had much success. Since the activities described above clearly take the side of the media industry on an important public policy debate, it seems curious to me that Scouts were not only encouraged to do these activities while in uniform but that they resulted in a badge which could be sewed onto the uniform.