Publishing Ethics: Copyright

Written by Joseph Koivisto


Hello again! Back with another blog post about the George Washington University’s Ethics & Publishing Conference. Today’s topic?

Do you own what you own and just how do you own it?: Immediately following a somewhat abridged break for lunch — for which I will quickly say: kudos, GW, great spread, wish we could have enjoyed it longer — we were treated to an excellent panel on Copyright and Fair Use. Moderated by Eric Slater of the American Chemical Society, the panel consisted of Kieth Kupfershmid of the Software & Information Industry Association, Chris Mohr of Meyer, Klipper & Mohr, PLLC, and Jodie Griffin of Public Knowledge. All three of the panelists were excellent and held a fantastic discourse on the topic of fair use and copyrights.

The discussion centered on two relatively recent court cases that centered on issues regarding copyrights and published media. Both cases raise interesting questions about the role of copyright law in the publishing industry and what impact court decisions will have on the future of publishing.

The first case discussed was Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a case that can be read about here. In brief, Supap Kirtsaeng — a then student at Cornell University — attracted the ire of publishers John Wiley & Sons, Inc. by having family and friends in his native Thailand send him English-language textbooks so that he could sell them on eBay. The motivation for this is that Wiley, like many publishers, price their wares according to the market in which they will be sold. Accordingly, prices for similar items are greatly decreased in developing markets (such as Thailand), allowing Kirtsaeng to undersell the publishers American MSRP while still making a profit. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided for Kirtsaeng, citing his right to first sale which enables an individual to sell something that they legally own.

How does this tie back to librarianship, you might wonder? From a publishers’ perspective, this court decision disincentivizes publishers to price books according to markets, which, according to Mohr and Kupfershmid, may lead to a single ‘global price’ which, in turn might decrease accessibility to information for smaller libraries in developing nations.

On the other hand, Griffin asked whether a negative court decision would have been any better because it may ultimately erode the notion of object ownership that is traditionally assumed when purchasing a copyrighted work (i.e. a book). If the right of first sale is invalidated in this case, might the dynamic become that of licensing information rather than owning an object?

The second case that the panel explored was that of Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi, Inc., which can be read about here. In this ongoing case, Capitol Records filed a suit against  ReDigi, producers of software that allows users to resell songs purchased from iTunes, claiming that their software illegally reproduces digital media that is owned by the record company. The case is ongoing, so be sure to watch for developments.

The question of resale of digital media is a huge issue for the publishing industry and, ultimately, any consumers of digital media — individuals, companies, libraries, you name it. For publishers, the unchecked resale of digital media would represent a death knell, or as Mohr put it (and I paraphrase), publishers could hire someone to turn out the lights on their way out. Digital media — an infinitely reproducible, nondepreciating good — represents one of the biggest challenges to copyright laws ever. However, consumer perspectives cannot be ignored. If the copyright law is modeled in such a way as to grant the greatest benefit to the publishing industry, then all consumers of digital media are beholden to the industry’s whims.

As library, archives, and museum professionals move forward into an increasingly digital world, we must keep an eye out for upcoming rulings on and changes to copyright law as they may have lasting impacts on the pricing, accessibility, and availability of print and digital media.


Still to come:

  • So, Just what is your carbon footprint?

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