[Air-l] Copyright and fair use -- further notes

Ted Friedman tedf at gsu.edu
Thu May 24 11:23:44 PDT 2001

On another listserv, academics who study rock music have often
complained about their difficulties in getting permission to quote song
lyrics in their work. Now, most academics agree that this kind of
quotation is "fair use." But, as I understand it, many song publishers
actively work to squeeze the boundaries of fair use by denying
permissions and threatening lawsuits.

So, each attempt to quote song lyrics in print exists in a gray area. A
matter of interpretation, and possible lawsuit with unclear outcomes.

That's where social practice and unequal power relations comes in. In
the face of large copyright-holding corporations with deep pockets, most
authors (and their publishers) do their best to stay out of the way, or
back down in cases of conflict. And so the copyright-owners'
ever-shrinking defninition of "fair use" becomes the de facto standard.

I agree, ultimately the way to make fundamental changes is to change the
law. If "fair use" were more generously and explicitly defined,
copyright owners couldn't make the same threats. But from day to day,
the struggles to determine what these legal principles mean in practice
go on outside the courthouse and the legislature.

Now, I can manage to write my next book without quoting specific song
lyrics. And I can find articles on the NYT web site by following links.
But more generally, we live in a media-saturated culture, in which a few
corporations "own" the culture that most of us consume. (Although I
don't see how they're the "authors" the constution's copyright provision
was designed to protect.) I believe that the most powerful and effective
forms of engagement with this culture, aesthetically, critically, and
politically, are postmodern strategies of appropriation, satire, and
signifyin'. Of course, it's in the best interests of copyright-holders
to control the way their texts are consumed, interpreted, and reworked.
But if we wish to critically engage, interrogate, and challenge the
state of American culture, we need to fight for the tools to do so.

Ted Friedman
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
Georgia State University
(404) 463-9522
tedf at gsu.edu

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