Two Famous Journalism Institutions Shame Themselves By Not Standing Up For Basic Fair Use

from the awful dept

Two of the most respected and forward looking schools for journalism are the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the Poynter Institute. I've long been a fan of both, but I'm now quite disappointed in both of them too. Last week, we had a few stories concerning a woman named Teri Buhl, who (to put it mildly) had some "unique" (and, by that we mean "totally wrong") legal theories concerning whether or not someone could quote her public statements on Twitter, as well as basic copyright and fair use rules. By the end of the week, she was threatening to sue us and others as well.

We are familiar with our fair use rights, and we think such rights are an important part of the law. In fact, fair use is frequently cited by courts as one of the key "safety valves" that ensures copyright does not violate the First Amendment. Fair use is of utmost importance in the act of journalism, and historically, news organizations have been some of the most zealous defenders of fair use. Section 107 of the Copyright Act explicitly calls out "news reporting" as one of the key areas where fair use applies. Given that, one would hope that these two giants of journalism education would stand up for fair use.

But last week, both failed to do so.

Both the Knight Center and Poynter wrote stories about the whole Teri Buhl saga. Both of them included the key screenshot of her Twitter profile, where she declares that "no tweets are publishable."
However, both Knight and Poynter have since modified the image in their own postings, with both admitting that they did so after Buhl told them that the image in her profile was covered by copyright and that they did not have permission to publish it. This is hogwash. The whole point of fair use is that you do not need permission. That's what fair use means. If you needed permission, you are not making use of your fair use rights. And yet, both the Knight Center and Poynter caved immediately.

This is problematic in a number of different ways. First, many journalists look to both the Knight Center and Poynter for leadership on ways in which journalists should act. Providing this kind of example runs entirely counter to the kinds of things they should do and the kinds of things they should stand for. They are teaching the wrong lesson. They're teaching a lesson that says "journalists should give up their fair use rights." Second, they are giving Buhl more ammunition. In various comments around the web, she has been pointing to these moves as some sort of evidence that she is correct and those using the image are violating her copyright. She is wrong. For respected journalism institutions like Knight and Poynter to cave and give her this kind of ammo is simply shameful.

Yes, there may be bigger or more important fights, and lots of organizations decide to cave in the face of bogus legal threats, rather than have to deal with them at all. But, people look to Knight and Poynter for leadership, and this is case where both failed to provide leadership on a key issue that impacts the First Amendment in a very real way. As someone who has had tremendous respect for both organizations, they both have lost a lot of credibility with me. If they're unwilling to stand up for our basic rights on something like this, what else will they cave on? Perhaps it's time for other journalism institutes, which actually have some principles, to step up and take the mantle as true leaders on these issues for journalists, because Knight and Poynter have failed to live up to their own principles.

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  1. identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 11 Feb 2013 @ 5:22am

    Omg Baby

    OMG. About to have my baby 6 weeks early. This rules. Oh yeah. Shame on them.

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