A great ruling from the Librarian of Congress

The recent statement made by the Librarian of Congress is bolstering and clarifying the fair use doctrine (which lays out exemptions from US copyright law in certain instances).

This is great news for consumers and documentary filmmakers alike. Instead of the overgrown American copyright lobby (MPAA, RIAA, etc) influencing this strengthening clarification, it was consumer advocacy groups like the EFF and documentary filmmakers themselves.

The consumer advocacy groups were arguing for greater control over products they bought and paid for (iPhones and ebooks), and the documentarians were arguing for the right to circumvent copyright protection measures on DVDs in order to sample movies for fair use media criticism. The latter deserves some explanation.

If an author wants to write a book about the history of racism in movies, he or she can simply quote dialog and describe scenes wherein racism is displayed. They don’t need to ask permission from Paramount Pictures to describe the scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Mickey Rooney shows an astonishingly racist depiction of Asian-Americans. But without the Fair Use Doctrine, a documentary filmmaker making a movie about racism in movies could be sued or even prosecuted for excerpting that snippit.

Since 1976, we’ve had fair use but up until now that didn’t change that you were breaking the law to obtain it in the first place. Unless you’ve got an original 35mm print of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a $100,000 telecine machine to scan the film you’d probably have to rip a DVD to get access to the video clip you wanted to excerpt. And that’s been illegal, putting documentarians at risk over a technicality. Well, not any more thanks to this clarification. So it’s great news: hopefully we’ll see more fair use in documentaries in the future.

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