Is Copyright Holding Back Research?

from the but-of-course dept

When we write about copyright issues here, it’s not uncommon for people to say “well, fine, if you don’t like copyright, don’t use it, but why do you care if others use it?” Indeed. If copyright didn’t interfere with the rights of others, that would be a reasonable point. The problem, however, is that it quite frequently does interfere with all kinds of rights. Michael Scott points us to a recent study of communications professors, which determined that copyright quite frequently stifles or interferes with the research they’re doing. One interesting aspect of this, however, is that it’s often the perception of copyright law that is the problem:

A survey of communication scholars’ practices, conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Fair Use and Academic Freedom in the International Communication Association (ICA), reveals that copyright ignorance and misunderstanding hamper distribution of finished work, derail work in progress, and most seriously, lead communication researchers simply to avoid certain kinds of research altogether.

Nearly half the respondents express a lack of confidence about their copyright knowledge in relation to their research. Nearly a third avoided research subjects or questions and a full fifth abandoned research already under way because of copyright concerns. In addition, many ICA members have faced resistance from publishers, editors, and university administrators when seeking to include copyrighted works in their research. Scholars are sometimes forced to seek copyright holders’ permission to discuss or criticize copyrighted works. Such permission seeking puts copyright holders in a position to exercise veto power over the publication of research, especially research that deals with contemporary or popular media.

Now, one response to this might be that these professors need to be better educated on the boundaries, exceptions and limits to copyright law. However, it’s not so simple. Part of the reason why there is so much fear of copyright law is because of the actions of many copyright holders, who not only aggressively push an extreme version of copyright law out to the public — such as the MPAA’s infamous (infamously wrong) “if you haven’t paid for it, you’ve stolen it” education campaing — but who have used ridiculously high statutory rates to publicize the idea that for very marginal copyright infringement, you may be liable for millions in damages awards (not counting legal fees).

The copyright holders themselves have been trying to paint this picture of copyright as being much more than it really is — and as a result of that, it’s now actively stifling all kinds of important research.

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Comments on “Is Copyright Holding Back Research?”

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tp (profile) says:

Why this happens?

Obviously authors of copyrighted works need to follow their own rules. You just can’t go setting restrictions to the rest of the world if you’re not willing to follow those restrictions yourself. And authors need to follow these limits to the letter, since they are professionally doing it and are supposed to know about their own limitations. Copyright was created to support author’s rights.

So given this situation, and stronger copyright protections advocated by some authors of audiovisual works, all the authors will need to follow these rules — it is no wonder that these restictions will make creating copyrighted works more difficult.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Why this happens?

Copyright was created to support author’s rights.

Copyright was actually created to guarantee publisher’s incomes. The stuff about “promoting the progress” and “author’s rights” was never more than a front to sell the concept to the legislators (and to the public).

The stationer’s company originally held a “Guild Monopoly” (granted in 1557 after much lobbying) on all printing. Censorship on behalf of the government was officially part of the deal – but opinion is divided as to whether the government made much use of it. Copyright was a private system, operating inside the stationer’s company at that time, designed to keep order within the company (and incidentally to give the older established firms an advantage since it was infinite). In those days copyright was never held by the author. It was effectively created by a member of the stationer’s company when he approved a book for publication.

The government allowed the stationers’ monopoly to expire around the time of the glorious revolution (1688) and for 20 years or so there was no copyright (although the stationers maintained their own private system it held no legal force). The stationers lobbied the government for the restoration of their privileges during this time – and eventually hit on the wheeze of roping in the authors as an excuse. On this basis the first copyright law of 1710 was passed

Originally copyright lasted 14 years + a possible 14 year extension. When the first copyrights started to expire in the mid 18th century the stationers started to lobby again – more urgently now because they were facing competition from Scottish printers. There were a number of legal cases , which mostly turned on the question of whether there was a pre-existing common law copyright or whether copyright was only created by the statute. At first the English courts decided (under a particular pro copyright law lord) that there was a common law copyright, however the Scottish courts came to a different decision and eventually the English House of Lords changed their minds. The “promote the progress” argument found in the US constitution seems to have originated around this time.

However it is clear that the familiar scenario of media middlemen using the authors as an excuse for pushing a law that really favours themselves only, goes right back to the beginning of copyright.

The reality is that copyright was created by middlemen for middlemen. Everything else – including “promoting the progress” and “author’s rights” is, and always has been, pure propaganda.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why this happens?

“The reality is that copyright was created by middlemen for middlemen. Everything else – including “promoting the progress” and “author’s rights” is, and always has been, pure propaganda.”

And what, may I ask, will happen when there is no need for the middlemen any more?

Oh wait thats happened already … never mind.

Richard (profile) says:

Not so much copyright itself - rather DRM

We have a line of research that involves analysing the texts of books and automatically extracting plot, character and scene information. Ultimately the aim would be to assist the automation of video game production.

We need unencumbered digital versions of lots of different books to do this (and of course we have to stick to the letter of the law since the research will be published). At present we are limited to 19th century works – plus a few modern authors (honourable mention to Cory Doctorow here) but the research is really messed up because we can’t try out our ideas on a representative enough sample without going around pleading to individual publishers/authors.

Of course the flip side of this is to promote the work of the select band of authors and publishers who do offer legal, unencumbered digital versions of their work.

Gordon says:

Re: Not so much copyright itself - rather DRM

Then do exactly that.
When the authors who have the issue with the research come crying that their works aren’t getting into your projects and thus aren’t getting any mention….you can simply tell them, “Hey, we came to you asking to use your works in the project and you said hell no”.
Or you could say “Hey if you didn’t have that crap DRM in place I would have already done the review of your works, but for fear of being SUED we decided “Screw that noise””.

My two Pennies.


"if you haven't paid for it, you've stolen it"

there is this thing called public domain and they keep shrinking it to ever continue to grow there revenues which constantly are shrinking at a faster rate.

YUP give it ten more years and the FULL on affects will be obvious , instead a people wanting inter net they won’t. AND when millions start doing something else other then what they want it will hasten how they blame piracy and then one day the forever copyright comes and when that dont work its home searches and then after that fails they will go broke

20 years max
the usa is all a bunch a lawyers, cops and military, once they cant afford those it all falls down.

AND i have looked at Canadian law and the comments made by the minister TOny Clement about admissions he took apple iTunes cracked the drm then put them to cdrs for his kids, means what exactly ? THATS BREAKING DRM , and its UPLOADING/trading ( WHICH IS CURRENTLY ILLEGAL ) and with his new law in this creation hes created a library as he “downloaded form itunes then cracked drm then pl;aced on CDRS as mp3s which in so doing breaches TPM section and the “making a library”

I say we all vote yes to the bill and then all start calling the cops about how conservatives are breaking the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

this story makes me think of archie bunker “go stifle yourself”. copyright isnt blocking them, only their own ignorance. why do i get the impression that these are the same professors who are writing any copyright diatribes without really understanding the suubject? fodder for techdirt, i guess.

Chris Lemon (profile) says:

Another Instance

An instance of this can be found at the following link:

BYU created an online searchable corpus of the English language dating back as far as the 1200’s. The “Problem” was that they used texts from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to do so. As you can see on the page, the researchers at BYU tried to contact OED for several years, with no response until they received a takedown notice.

OED’s reaction to BYU’s creation of this corpus (which OED does not offer itself) has kept numerous linguistic researchers from having access to one of the more extensive corpora available, all because they have a “copyright” on data and documents, some of which date back over 800 years.

Pat Aufderheide (profile) says:

Fair Use is the solution to many of these problems

So sorry that we switched websites just after the blog post was written, and the link went dead. You can find the document at
The communication scholars have now created a code of best practices in fair use for scholarly research in communication, which will be released at ICA’s annual conference, in Singapore, on June 22. Then it’ll live at

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Fair Use is the solution to many of these problems

I’ve done quite a bit of research and have contributed to textbooks. I’ve found that working within the definitions of fair use has allowed me to do what I need to do.

For any person who can’t cite a reference within the bounds of fair use, or can’t or won’t obtain permission, you can always paraphrase when it comes to text. Just summarize what you can’t quote.

If you need to show an image, chances are you can find it somewhere online and can provide a link to it.

There are workable solutions to these problems.

Jay (profile) says:

Something I've been thinking about

When have we ever had a discussion on copyrights in the US? I’ve been very interested in either forming something so that it may be discussed or finding ways to open more discussions. Quite frankly, as the laws exist now, they are nothing more than ways to chill science, research, free speech as well as finding little to truly educate youngsters in how to use technology to better society at large.

Technopolitical (profile) says:

Re: When have we ever had a discussion on copyrights in the US?


Jefferson , Madison and co.

It was all settled then .

no need to got back, but rad there posts if you wish.
You wanna , change the Constitution,
well you , know ,,

we all wanna charge your head,,,

You tell me its the institution ,

you better free ,

your mind instead,,,

but , if go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao ,

You aint goona make with any one , ANY How!!!

Don’t you know it gonna be ……

bop, shooo , bop , shooby do wop
The Beatles – Revolution (Live)

Again,, the best 4 mins of Rock n roll ever !!!!!!!

even with the feedback , during verse one ,, and John , almost kicking the mic stand over ,,,

Watch Paulies little Beatlemania dance ,, before the instrumental break ,,, “we got now ,, kid ,, watch this ,,,, we is the Beatles!!!”

Enjoy ,, AND THINK ABOUT THE Lyrics —— MIKE , and the rest of you Pirates.

Darryl says:

Ignorance is no defense of the law.

Lack of knowledge of a law is not a defense.

this is a clear, and concise fact of law, it’s up to you to know what laws apply to you, and abide by those laws.

So to say that some academics, in communications DONT KNOW about copyright law, makes me think that these people are in the wrong game.

It’s takes all of 10 minutes to confirm you’re rights and abilities that apply to copyright law, especially in education, (where “fair use” is applied, and it’s what fair use if for — NON-Profit Educational.

So academics are one of a very small group of people, that copyright laws specifically addresses and makes allowence for.

“A survey of communication scholars’ practices, conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Fair Use and Academic Freedom in the International Communication Association (ICA), reveals that copyright ignorance and misunderstanding hamper distribution of finished work, derail work in progress”

So “communication scholars” DONT UNDERSTAND a very simple, consise, clearly defined concept of “fair use” as applied by the balancing test.

send those “communication scholars” to me please, If I cannot show them how fair use works, in 30 seconds, then they might want to consider a job as a brick layer.

And again, ignorance of the law is not a defense of the law.

And if a “communication scholar’ cant figure it out, he’s not that good to start with. And I would have to ask what the heck does he/she do all day ?

Particularly, as this is exactly the reason ‘fair use’ exists, for educational non-profit research, not for lifting huge chunks of others work, but to take snippets, or comments for study and research.

It’s not about how much work of someone else you can lift and just drop into you’re own research, en mass.

All of which are clearly defined (and easy to understand) fair use, and balancing test.

Those ‘scholars’ need to go back to school, and stop admitting that they have little or no knowledge of their supposed field of expertise.

So if you tell the police man you did not know the speed limit of the street, so you could go any speed, you would still be booked for speeding. It’s a simple rule, that everyone ‘should’ be aware or.

Dimitrios Agorastos (user link) says:

This is so true! Besides that, I can talk about many other problems that copyright causes to scientific research. It’s impossible to do specific types of research because certain peer-reviewed papers, techniques and means happens to be inaccessible to you do due to copyright issues.

For example, I am a psychologist and currently working on neuropsychology research and some times I just abandoned certain research proposals due to copyright-related problems e.g. can’t download the necessary papers because my institution doesn’t have a subscription there for the time being or usage of certain types of questionnaires and tests are way too expensive to use them in a wide number of subjects.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

For example, I am a psychologist and currently working on neuropsychology research and some times I just abandoned certain research proposals due to copyright-related problems e.g. can’t download the necessary papers because my institution doesn’t have a subscription there for the time being or usage of certain types of questionnaires and tests are way too expensive to use them in a wide number of subjects.

I can see where costs might prevent you from being able to use multiple copies of a test, but in terms of a research paper, if it is very important to you and you can’t access it through your own university, have you tried to contact the author directly for a copy or even asked a colleague at a different university to make a copy for you and send it to you?

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was doing some fairly involved research recently and was Googling for research articles. In many cases I would initially find citations and abstracts, but I would keep digging and pretty much found everything I needed in one form or another. If it was in a book, I was usually able to read it online via Google or Amazon.

In some cases, professors had even gone so far as to photocopy an article, convert it to a PDF file, and then uploaded that for their classes to use.

What I found was that I was actually able to do more in-depth research from the convenience of my computer than I was able to do 20 years ago in the library of a major university using the best research tools that were available then. Far more is indexed and cross-indexed now than there ever used to be.

I am amazed at the wealth of information that is available online these days. I don’t think a lot of people put in the time to find it, but it is there.

Darryl says:

The owner of the copyright does not have to make his work available: because you have a fair use right.

Just because copyright laws allows you fair use of non-profit educational purposes. Which is all these scholars (almost 50 percent, minority of them) require.

Having the right to fair use, put NO requirements upon the owner of the copyrighted material to make it available to you. That is a totally seperate issue.

Sure, under fair use, you allowed to use parts for research or critique purposes. That does not mean the creator of that work has any requirements or legal obligation to make that information available to you.

And I think Mike is confusing these two seperate issues.

If you study art, and you want to study the original monalisa, there is no requirement of the owner of that work to provide you access to it, even for fair use.

If you want to do research from a textbook, you still have to purchase that textbook, pay for the effort it took to create that work, to write and print and distribute it and so on.

So as an academic, you are more than welcome to purchase that book, and under fair use, use parts of it (with acknoligments to source) for you’re research and so on.

But just because you want to do research from that textbook work, there is no requirement to make that work available to you, for a price or even at all.

This is a confustion that I think Mike tries to promote to some degree, and it’s a wrong assumption to make.

There is no requirement under copyright law that requires the owner of the copyright to make it freely available.

But in general, copyright is a power to allow the owner of the copyrighted work to make that work available in any way he/she wishes, for a specific price or only to specific people, or not at all.

Allowing them to make their work public without the risk of most or all of their work being copied or used for purposes of profit, or gains.

Fair use, means you can use bits of a work, IF YOU CAN, ie if you have purchased or acquired a copy (legal copy) of that work.

If I did a survey of a group of electronics engeering scholars and nearly half said they did not understand basic Ohms Law. Then I would not consider them engineers at all.

If a communications scholar cant understand basic copyright, and fair use laws, something that takes all of 10 minutes to learn. Then what does he spend his time doing, thats what research is.

What about an electrician that does not know the basic laws of electrical wiring rules ? It’s the same thing, it’s basic knowledge for someone in the field should know as second nature.

You know things like bibliogrhaphy and so on, is all for copywrite and fair use acknolegment. And it stops you claiming someone elses work as you own. Which is a massive NO NO in the sciences and literary circles.

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