Professor Uses Copyright Threats After Joke Commercial Uses Some Of His Lecture

from the copyright-insanity dept

So many stories of copyright being abused, so little time… The latest, as sent in by Jon and a few others involves an MIT professor who got upset when he found out that a commercial for a Ricoh copier happened to use a tiny bit of text (2 sentences) from one of his published lectures to set up a joke. You can see the commercial here:

You can see the full lecture, but the quotes in the commercial come from the sixth paragraph. The professor then sent a legalistic letter to the folks who made the commercial, who have agreed to “settle” by donating $5,000 to two science related charities. Once again, though, we’re seeing a misuse of copyright law in action — even if the end result is positive (some extra cash for some science charities). It would seem like a clear case of fair use here, where the use of these lines in the commercial were unlikely to damage the commercial potential of the professor’s work. It’s yet another case where someone is using copyright to try to control all aspects of his work, when that’s not its purpose at all.

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Comments on “Professor Uses Copyright Threats After Joke Commercial Uses Some Of His Lecture”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Another view

Not that I have much use for those who misuse copyright law, but let me spin this another way. In an academic setting using the sentences in question without attribution would have been (rightly) considered plagiarism. Since he couldn’t flunk the smarmy little turd of a copywriter who used his words, I guess the professor figured this was his next best option.

I can’t believe I’m seeing people defend marketing people. Just because the advertising agency cast two hotties in the commercial does not make them any less a bunch of amoral rip-off artists.

Another spineless, nameless coward says:

Re: Another view

“…couldn’t flunk the smarmy little turd of a copywriter who used his words…”

What’s totally amazing is that the smarmy little marketing copywriter amoral rip-off turd was reading an MIT web page and knew enough to lift something meaningful and useful. He actually had to read down to the sixth paragraph to find material to pilfer.

Perhaps his mother helped.

Broho3 says:


Actually if I understand copyright law (and this is what the professor is claiming … not plagiarism), you are allowed to use small bits of copyrighted material before copyright infingment occurs. For instance, when radio stations use small audio clips from movies and television shows as long as they keep them below 20 seconds they haven’t violated any copyrights. Therefore I can’t imagine that using two sentances out of paragraph six of an entire lecture equates to a copyright infringment. Let’s stop this pettiness and just settle the law suit by letting uber-nerd professor go on a date with both of these models.

Shun says:

Fair Use?

Normally, I’m a fairly strong proponent of fair use. I diverge from my normal principles on this point, however. Perhaps I’m being paid by MIT academicians to write this, but you decide. There is a glaring issue here that we have not touched on, yet.

1. The ad was made in Australia. I am not sure what the Fair Use implications are in Australia. They are a Commonwealth country (no First Amendment, heck no written Constitution) and were founded by convicts (I know, that last point is irrelevant, but I like to throw that in there).

2. The work was lifted from an academic lecture, to be used in a commercial advertisement. The “source” of the information (lecturer) probably wasn’t planning on profiting from the words which he spoke, at the time. Ricoh, most likely, was attempting to profit quite handsomely from the use of these words, if only to prove that their models are smarter than other models (at least they can read a script).

So, the issue is not one of pure fair use, but it is “entangled” by the concept of lifting academic lectures for the purpose of selling printers. Quite a sticky situation.

Oh, and he never actually threatened to sue. He sent them a friendly letter saying “Please give money to these 2 charities”. He probably threated to smear Ricoh and the ad agency’s name on his blog. Not much of a threat, but since they played nice, I am sure that Mr. Quantum Mechanics is being nice to them in turn. Everybody’s a winner, or some such cruft.

At any rate, all of this could have been avoided if they had just put a tiny little credit in the ad saying “lifted from” or something similar. This resembles the Flickr/Vodaphone controversy, but in this instance, the missing ingredient was attribution.

Shame on Ricoh, next time hire someone with class, like Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols .

John L says:

Whoa - Fair Use? Not So Fast


But, my job as an internal auditor for my company comes across fair use issues quite a bit. Let’s get some things straight:

– Fair use does not permit “small bits” of copyrighted material. For example, see: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters [471 U.S. 539]. There is no hard and fast rule about “number of seconds/words/sentences”, etc., that can be used.

– Citation of the copyright owner does not permit use of copyrighted material. You still must obtain explicit permission from the owner/holder.

– To determine fair use, US courts use a four part test:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

2. the nature of the copyrighted work;

3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

A first glance, a court would probably vote strongly against a fair use argument on pts 1 (definitely not transformative nor for the general good) neutral on pts 2 and 3, and find pt 4 in favor of a fair use argument.

In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music [510 U.S. 569], the courts found parody for commercial purposes can still be fair use so my guess is that’d be Ricoh’s best argument. (Then again, the commercial isn’t a parody of the speech or physics…it’s a parody of models. Maybe.)

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Whoa - Fair Use? Not So Fast

– To determine fair use, US courts use a four part test:

True, but it’s worth noting that the four parts are not weighted equally, and it’s not a situation where if you trigger one of the four you’re automatically losing fair use claims.

The most important claim is that fourth one, and I think you’d be hard pressed to claim that this impacts the market for the copyrighted work in a negative way.

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