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Ethics and Legality?

February 25, 2013

I have been asked to evaluate the ethics and legality of one of a handful of websites for the History and New Media Course that I am currently attending.

Here is my take:

I have argued in previous posts that there is a tension between the idea of fairness in the concepts of copyright and fair use and the actual exercise of power, namely economic power. Yes, we have laws on the books. And yes, we also have the entrenched, purported “owners” of intellectual property, who can, if they choose, put resources to protect this property that dwarfs anything an individual could muster.

Thus, we must at some stage realize than when we are analyzing the legality of a website, particularly an archive of material the poster does not own, we are making a theoretical argument that does not necessarily reflect the actual risk of the publisher. Yes, Time Warner owns the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday.” But they aren’t going to necessarily bang down your door unless you have something that’s worth their time.

Ethics aside (which are inherently subjective), if we were to evaluate say, The Time Magazine Corpus, hosted by Brigham Young University http://corpus.byu.edu/time/ we can measure these arguments. First question: Does BYU have permission to create a mini-search engine that allows you to search TIME Magazine for various queries based on key words? It is unclear. Probably not. Does it matter? It depends on whether it behooves the owners of TIME to sue for copyright violation. Fair use usually includes academic pursuits, but I am skeptical that this reason alone would stop a large media corporation from imposing control over the use of its content. Be that as it may, the site is up and functioning and appears, to date, to not suffer from a legal challenge from TIME or its owners.

I could write a much more lengthy piece on the ethics in this environment; suffice is to say that powerful interests unduly imposing their power gives little credence to legal structures that are supposed to protect intellectual pursuits. Therefore, I applaud efforts that create more access to the intellectual property of these giants, unsanctioned or otherwise.

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One Comment
  1. A bit too much off the cuff here. Fair use is in fact a recognized aspect of copyright law that carries legal weight. As unequal the power may be, there are still limits to the power of Time Warner. You need to at least weigh the arguments of Jaszi and Aufderheide. Also, there is a reason that it is still up and running.

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