Copyright was originally established to facilitate open dialogue and discussion, according to Tim Brooks, one of the nation’s leading television and recording industry historians. However, citizens today should be wary of efforts to use copyright to the opposite effect.
“College students need to understand that the more copyright is used to restrict, the more danger there is that copyright can be used to restrict all kinds of things, not only economic, but social, too,” he said, sharing several examples, including an attempt by the estate of Margaret Mitchell to stop the publication of a novel that tells the story of Gone With the Wind from the view of the enslaved people.
“Copyright can be very chilling on free speech, and I think that’s why students as well as citizens generally need to be very, very careful about letting this monopoly get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Brooks said.
Brooks, who retired in 2007 as executive vice president of research for Lifetime Television, met this week with several groups of students and faculty at William & Mary, including a History of Western Music class and the university’s radio station, WCWM. On Thursday night, he will give a talk on “African Americans at the Birth of the Recording Industry,” at 7 p.m. in Tucker Theater. The lecture is free and open to the public.
But Brooks began his time at William & Mary Wednesday by sharing a lunch – and his expertise – with a group of students who have been working with Interim Scholarly Communications Librarian Kathleen DeLaurenti this semester on the issue of copyright.
DeLaurenti conducted a research study last year on what undergraduate students think of music copyright.
“One of the big conclusions of the study was that all of the students felt like they didn't know enough and it was a very complicated issue,” she said.
Those findings led DeLaurenti to apply for and receive a Robert Oakley Memorial Scholarship from the American Library Association in order to develop basic music copyright tutorials with the help of a few students. The aim is to have the tutorials hosted on the ALA website, DeLaurenti said.
“Having Tim Brooks here, a national leader on issues relating to music copyright, is a great opportunity for the students to get to meet an expert and ask some burning questions about how music copyright works, what maybe isn't working so well and how they can be involved in making it better,” she said.
Brooks has written multiple books on the history of the recording and TV industries, including The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present (1979), co-authored with Earle Marsh; the award-winning Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry (2004); and 2013’s College Radio Days, which details the history of student broadcasting at Dartmouth College.
In his most recent position at Lifetime Television, he was responsible for all of the research involved in the company’s programming and online and advertising sales. He has served in numerous roles with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, including as its president and chair of the copyright committee.
During the informal lunch discussion with DeLaurenti and her students, Brooks drew on his wide-ranging experience to address questions ranging from how the Trans-Pacific Partnership might impact copyright laws internationally to how sites like YouTube handle copyright disputes.
One student asked Brooks about whether laws are created for the benefit corporate copyright holders.
“You have to understand what’s driving them,” Brooks replied, adding that many in the recording industry care about music but their jobs depend on whether the company is making money.
“They make the case, with some justice, that they employ a large amount of people and unless they have some sort of protection over what’s being created in an information economy, jobs will be lost,” he said.
The U.S. is now a country that runs largely on intellectual property, Brooks said, and, some argue, that must be protected differently than how a product like a car is protected.
Yet, with the dawn of the Internet age, the recording industry took steps to ramp up its protections, and, now the country has some of the strictest copyright laws in the world in order to fend off practices such as the illegal downloading of music.
However, in his research, Brooks found that most people aren’t looking to steal music or other programming.
“They are willing to pay, but you’ve got to give them value for what they’re getting,” he said, adding that people will pay if the content is offered in format they want, such as with streaming TV services.
More commonly, many people encounter copyright issues on sites like YouTube or SoundCloud when they try to upload a video or podcast that includes portions of copyrighted music. Although “fair use” allows for exceptions – such as a professor using music clips in a lecture that is later posted online – copyright holders will sometimes press the issue, even threatening law suits.
That is why it is important that people “accurately use all of the rights afforded to them,” said DeLaurenti.
Because the laws are open to interpretation, people who are trying to determine whether their work falls under the fair use exemption should do a risk assessment of the situation, Brooks said.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Do it and ask forgiveness later,’” he said, “and that’s true in copyright.“It’s unfortunate that our copyright laws are so dysfunctional right now that a lot of it is kind of being made up as you go along. But again, you always have to kind of look through the other side’s eyes and make sure that you’re not trampling on something that they have a legitimate case for, but if you’re not, if it’s just being done on the letter of the law or through excessive fear or what-ifs, then that’s what risk assessment is about.”