Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Copyright Book: A Practical Guide
Sixth Edition
by William S. Strong
MIT Press

It would be nice if there could be a reasonably simple guide to copyright--like what can be copyrighted and what constitutes "fair use"of copyrighted material--but this is possibly the most tangled, complicated and ever-changing area of law that exists.

There are statutes that seem to be almost continuously revised in Congress (a friend who covered one epic revision of the copyright law for an interested journal called it "The Attorney Enrichment Act") which are themselves subject to individual court cases that do not always render consistent decisions.

Add to this the fast-moving changes in electronic media and the much greater number of possible copyright claimers and violators empowered by the Internet and its ever-changing features that challenge the concept of publication or dissemination.

Unfortunately such a guide is therefore unlikely if not impossible. William S. Strong's sixth edition, published officially in June, looks at copyright law and relevant court cases not only for the traditional writers, publishers, music composers etc. but for programmers, file-sharers etc.  But I gave up any attempt to find patterns or rationales that are broadly applicable.  So this book seems best suited to answering questions about specific areas.

Strong tries to be thorough, providing history of the law and court cases as well as current practice.  His prose can get lost in lawyerly complexity, but then, that's more a reflection of the subject matter.  Strong has his own strong views on how the law should apply, which further complicates matters, although those concerned with those specific areas may well find it all spellbinding.

He explains how to apply for copyright protection, though this, like everything else, is information relevant for an unknown duration.  This is after all the sixth edition.

This is all important stuff, and there are moral and social questions involved (the right of creators to be compensated, or else there's less incentive to create; the theft involved in profiting on somebody else's work, etc.) though it is often more about money and power than justice.
It should be clear however that this book is about copyright law and not about plagiarism or ethical guidelines that are usually much clearer.  And for those who aren't lawyers or can't afford to hire lawyers to try cases that might last years, some publishers and other companies have their own guidelines, for "fair use" for example, that are more specific.  (Strong offers a couple of links but simply firing up your search engine for "fair use" yields many more.)

This is a sturdy, handy-sized volume with an attractive sky blue color that should fit nicely on your reference shelf, where it may comfortably sit until needed.  

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