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Know Your Rights

If you’re a creator and are thinking you ought to start registering your copyrights, read on.

Normally, I would tell you to just do it, and to do it now. If you’ve got stuff that’s going to go out into the world, that can be easily copied, that’s going to be posted on the Web, it’s always a good idea to spend the money and get it registered with the Copyright Office. Registration gives you a bunch of protections you wouldn’t get otherwise, like the ability to go to court if somebody rips you off. And yes, it’s infinitely better than mailing yourself your work, which is tantamount to peeing in your hat. Really. Don’t bother. “Poor Man’s Copyright” is a myth that just won’t seem to go away.

Anyway, if you’re thinking about registering your stuff, don’t do it yet! Wait a little while. Sometime this summer, the Copyright Office is going to start accepting electronic filings over the Internet. Not only will it be simple and maybe even fun, the price of registering online will be $35, a $10 savings from the paper-filing fee of $45. Digitized versions of your work will be accepted with the filing. The Copyright Office doesn’t come out and say it, but electronic filing will almost definitely speed up the registration process, which has in the past taken months and months, which can be really frustrating if somebody’s infringing your work and you need the registration right now.

And don’t forget, collections of works in the same media can be registered on one application if all of the works are unpublished. That’s a bargain. For more info, go look at copyright.gov.

Moving on. One interesting thing about intellectual-property law in these extremely polarized times is how it seems to have battlegrounds in a dimension that’s totally disconnected from the whole red-state-blue-state-phony-Christian-two-faced-liberal paradigm that seems to dominate everything else in the world.

Like this here: Last week, blowhard conservative weenie columnist Michelle Malkin posted a video blog on her site and on YouTube in which she blasted Senegalese rapper Akon. She included some Akon video clips, including one of Akon dry-humping and dragging a girl, reported to be a 14-year-old minister’s daughter, around a stage at a nightclub in Trinidad. Malkin’s outrage was entirely justified—although I’ve seen the clips, and if that girl’s really 14, then, well, I’m really Karl Rove. No matter; it would be disgusting if she were 41. And I’m not exactly a prude.

Those nice folks at Universal Music Group, Akon’s label, demanded that YouTube take Malkin’s podcast down, claiming the clips included some of Akon’s precious music, for which Universal owns the copyrights. YouTube, which is getting sued left and right for copyright violations, quickly complied.

There’s a little problem here that involves free speech and fair use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization often painted as “anti-creator” and “copy-leftist,” came to Malkin’s aid, explaining to both Universal and YouTube that Malkin’s use of the Akon clips was protected by the First Amendment and the fair-use doctrine, which allow the use of otherwise copyrighted material in conjunction with commentary and criticism. This is basic, obvious, and fundamental. Universal was using copyright law to stop Malkin from talking about one of its “artists.” And that’s just not how it works.

In any event, it’s a fascinating alliance, as evidenced by the confused ramblings of Malkin’s pathetic neocon fans in the comments to her blog. The EFF is blasting away at Bush administration darlings like the federal-ID program, data mining, illegal NSA surveillance, airport-security paranoia, and bogus electronic-voting machines, and the EFF’s championing of Malkin’s free-speech rights is leaving the ditto-heads a trifle dazed and confused.

It’s called consistency, fools. Shut up, look, and think for a change, and maybe you’ll learn something.

Speaking of fair use, a video popped up on the Web this week that’s absolutely breath-taking. A 10-minute remix masterpiece that came out of Stanford University’s Fair Use Project uses Disney animated characters to explain copyright law and the fair-use doctrine, one word or short phrase at a time. What makes this particularly dazzling is the fact that Disney has long been the evil empire of information abuse, consistently over-protecting its “properties” to the detriment of free speech, even going so far as buying Congressional approval of an extension of the statutory term of copyright 10 years ago so that Mickey Mouse cartoons wouldn’t fall into the public domain. As I just told a client 20 minutes ago, there’s copyright law, and then there’s the law of Disney.

I’m sure Disney’s shiny young lawyers are wringing their hands over this one, and they have to know that if they lift a finger to squelch this instant classic on the Internet or anywhere else, they’ll be buried alive. Google “fair use Disney” and you’ll find it all over the Web. Enjoy!

—Paul C. Rapp

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can be found at www.paulrapp.com. Comments about this article can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.


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