Concerning Intellectual Property: A Conversation Between Ellen Seiter and Pat Aufderheide (Part One)

The grassroots efforts to block the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA) represented simply the most recent and most highly publicized skirmish in ongoing struggles over the nature of intellectual property law and how it impacts the new media landscape. If intellectual property law might once have seemed to be a narrow and somewhat obscure focus for legal scholarship, it has become more and more central to the field of media and communication studies, as it has become part of the everyday reality of fans, artists, and teachers, struggling to figure out the extent of their Fair Use rights. As more and more of us are producing and circulating media, sometimes within, sometimes outside, current legal frameworks, intellectual property constitutes both an enabling mechanism and a constraint of our expressive possibilities. Seiter's book, The Creative Artist's Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production, co-authored with Bill Seiter, was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.   Pat Aufderheide's  Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, co-authored with Peter Jaszi was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. Both represent indispensable guides to the current legal landscape  by veteran communication scholars (working in each case with a lawyer) which address how IP law impacts the production, circulation, and consumption of media. Both combine pragmatic understanding of the often contested status of current law as well as a theoretical understanding of how these decisions impact the future of communications.

My goal here was to spark a conversation between Aufderheide and Seiter, which explored some of the key themes in their books, and addressed some of the central controversies around intellectual property. I could not have imagined the commitment they would both show to this exchange and the depth of insights they brought to their interactions with each other. My job now is to get out of the way and let this exchange unfold over the next five blog posts.

Ellen’s section on copyright opens with the sentence, “One of these days you are going to receive a Cease and Desist letter.” This would not have been true at earlier moments in history where the communications and creative practices of most people would not have been exposed to this kind of legal scrutiny. So, what do you think are the consequences of this wide-spread engagement with legal struggles over intellectual property? How might larger public concerns inform our current understanding of this area of the law?

Pat: In fact, most people today are not going to get a Cease and Desist letter (though many more are likely to get a Content ID match or a takedown on YouTube, of which more later.) Ellen’s book is of course written for professional artists, who are more likely than the general public but still not very likely to get one. But one cease and desist letter sent to one person echoes through the culture, and then mythologizes into a full-blown lawsuit before you can stamp out a rumor. (We document some of this mythmaking in our book.) So it’s an excellent way to begin, to get people’s attention, demystify them, and also help them put themselves in a position where they are even more unlikely to get one.

Ellen: Google reports receiving over a million copyright notices per week, and these are passed on to users through takedown notices, usually within 24 hours. We wrote our book to speak to young, technologically savvy and admittedly ambitious media artists, who do post aggressively and frequently on line and, especially when they are enrolled at a college or university with a lot at stake as ISP providers do tend to police the students very stringently-- cease and desist or we will take down your email account. Pat is right that there can be a panic around these things-- many of my students in my anime course (who are avid amateur media makers) for example, worried that the campus police would be knocking on their door the minute they downloaded a bittorrent file, while others were very creative. So it is fairly common for intense young filmmakers eager to be discovered to get such a letter and we wanted to defuse the fear and use the specter of the letter as a teachable moment. According to Google’s transparency report, Comcast’s NBCUniversal rank near the top of senders of copyright notices. Now that YouTube and NBCUniversal are partners on projects like streaming the Olympics, we can expect that Google will become more and more friendly with the major media conglomerates. In fact, they have begun penalizing recipients of takedown notices by moving their content down the search engine algorithm.

Pat:Yes, it’s wise to know what to do with bullies, and many cease and desist letters are acts of bullying, as are many takedown notices on YouTube. And that’s why these days people in general need to know what their rights as users are under copyright.

You’re so right, Henry, that this didn’t use to be the case. Before 1978 (and Ellen’s book is great at many specifics of this story), when a 1976 overhauling of copyright went into effect, many works were not copyrighted at all. Many copyrighted works had not had their copyright renewed. Copyright was relatively short. All that is changed. These days, copyright is default--everything I just typed is now copyrighted to me. And copyright is looooooong--this paragraph is copyrighted to me until 70 years after my death. The monopoly right I hold on this paragraph extends to derivative products--so don’t try to make a poem, a song, or a play out of this paragraph. If I send you a cease and desist letter (I’ll see if my lawyer buddy will send it on his letterhead), I’ll talk about the “statutory damages,” or extra fines, you might get slapped with if you’re found to be infringing my monopoly right. They can be as high as $150,000 per infringement, although they never actually are.

Ellen: I have watched the growth of copyright intimidation since I got an MFA in filmmaking in 1976 at Northwestern. In those days we borrowed found footage and music for soundtracks freely, shot on 16mm, and screened our work in lecture halls and art galleries like Chicago Filmmakers and even festivals did not look very closely at any kinds of rights clearances. Through thirty years of teaching, much of it in production classes, I have seen the rights culture grow but also the scale of students’ ambitions. We just wanted a hundred or so other cool experimental filmmakers to know our work-- now students angle for overnight stardom and a contract from CAA, and this does lead to trouble. This type of individual-- who we wrote the book for -- has a lot of nerve, frankly, and does not intimidate so easily.

Pat: Artists face particular challenges in the remix era, in which everything is both copyable and copyrighted, and it’s wonderful that they they are so assertive. Our dream, and I think Ellen’s as well, is to make sure they know their (and others’!) rights, they don’t accept copyright bullying, and they don’t unnecessarily self-criminalize. It’s always sad to me to see someone fiercely declare their courageous act of piracy when it might be a perfectly legal fair use. For every courageous person, there have to be ten who didn’t take the “risk,” and self-censored.

This issue matters to everybody, actually, because copyright law intersects with ordinary creative practice--not just making the great American painting or writing the great American novel or making the great American movie, but everyday tasks such as composing a birthday slide show, or making a poster for the meeting, or writing a comment on somebody’s blog, or posting a clip from your trip to the club last night on your Facebook page.

When people are intimidated by what they understand--or misunderstand--to be copyright-driven limitations on their ability to create, they stifle their own thinking, much less their creative actions. This is what Prof. Peter Jaszi and I learned from in-depth studies of creative practice in ten different creative communities, as we discuss in our book.

When they understand that copyright protects both new users and copyright holders, in the service of creating more culture, they are able to exercise their First Amendment rights with greater confidence, and this has deep ramifications in creative practice. It changes how they think about their creative choices, long before they shape a creative act.

So copyright, as one branch of what has come (in my mind, unfortunately) to be called intellectual “property,” is part of the apparatus that shapes our individual contributions to the culture. Like trademark and patent law (also part of that sphere of law that lawyers just call IP), it both constrains and rewards cultural expression. As participants in this culture, we are stuck caring about IP policy, if we care about the future of our culture.

Ellen: I differ from Pat in two ways in my focus. First, I think the bad guys will ultimately be companies like Google (owner of YouTube) and Apple. They are the next giants of media monopolization and increasingly participate in takedown notices. Google is so big by now (Apple, too) and we are so intertwined with it, that there is little way out of their terms of service. Their financial and political alliances will make them argue for free posting when it suits their interests, litigate the hell out of competitors over patent infringements when THAT suits their interests, and send out takedown notices when it is to their political and business advantage to placate copyright holders. Meanwhile they will be implacable about their own terms of use or adhesion contracts, and make up a lot of their own rules about how people access content, what is taken down, what is hate speech (as we have seen in recent weeks), and when they cooperate with governments and when they don’t.

Pat: Thank you, Ellen, for pointing out that Google isn’t necessarily not evil in this story. I don’t want to be sanguine about the future of Google or any other companies that have created path dependence or effectively offer utility services. Terms of service have a grisly ability to override rights, and vertically integrated companies have special opportunities to take advantage of customer goodwill.

People often put up with outrageous terms of service because they’re not fully aware of what they’re giving up. This is why we think it’s so important to understand what’s at risk. At the moment, copyright policy is dangerously unbalanced, tilted in favor of monopoly rights holders (I can’t in conscience call them owners, since I don’t think they own their copyright, I think they’ve been given a limited monopoly over that stuff by the government). At the same time, large media companies strongly assert their political influence over the policy process. So it’s a very unpredictable and hazardous process to try to rebalance copyright directly via legislation. It’s also very chancy to try to get more balance in the law through lawsuits, since they typically occur around outlier cases, and you can never count on a judge thinking the way you do. So practice becomes extremely important as a way to shift balance. That’s why we wrote the book--to help people take that action to rebalance via practice.

Without the empowering knowledge that they have First Amendment rights within copyright, many frustrated people who create using other people’s materials--such as remix artists--imagine falsely that they are committing a criminal act. They call themselves “pirates,” and believe they’re standing up courageously to repression. But copyright law actually permits, under fair use, people to employ other people’s copyrighted material for the creation of new culture. Our book goes into the basic logic to make a fair use decision, but basically you need to ask two questions: 1) am I using this material for its original purpose or am I repurposing in order to do something different with it? and 2) am I using the appropriate amount to accomplish my goal? And this doesn’t even have to be creating new work. Archivists and librarians routinely repurpose copyrighted material without paying for it, employing fair use successfully and without being challenged.

Pat Aufderheide is the Co-Director of the Center for Social Media and University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago Press, July 2011), and author of, among others, Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), The Daily Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and of Communications Policy in the Public Interest (Guilford Press, 1999). She heads the Fair Use and Free Speech research project at the Center, in conjunction with Prof. Peter Jaszi in American University's Washington College of Law.

Ellen Seiter holds the Nenno Endowed Chair in Television Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she teaches courses on television and new media history, theory and criticism in the Critical Studies Division. She is the author of The Internet Playground: Children's Access, Entertainment and Mis-Education (Peter Lang, 2005), Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford, 1999), Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (Rutgers, 1993) and Remote Control; Television, Audiences and Cultural Power (Routledge, 1989). Her latest book, The Creative Artist's Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.