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To read comments to this article, go here
"Bound by Law" - PJ: "I love this book. Give it to your favorite IP Neanderthal."
Wednesday, March 15 2006 @ 07:51 AM EST

You have got to see this. Three law professors have written a comic book, Bound by Law? (Tales from the Public Domain), explaining US copyright law, specifically as it currently impacts documentary filmmakers. The book reminds me a bit of Scott McCloud's work, whom I gratefully acknowledge as an influence on me, although I can never explain in words exactly how. I just know I never would have tried to do Groklaw if I hadn't read "Understanding Comics."

When I started Groklaw, the influence was a bit more clear because my idea was to combine graphics and text in ways I hoped would be funny because of nuanced juxtapositions, letting the combination of text with pictures say more than I could with just words. I could never get clearances on the graphics in time, though, so I ended up having to give graphics up and just stick to creating funny images in your mind as best I can with words. That's fun too, of course, but I have this creative yearning that isn't satisfied with text only. This comic book is fun and funny and clear, because that is what they do -- nuanced juxtapositions of text with graphics.

By the time people started to make graphics available under Creative Commons licenses, I was a guest on ibiblio, so I can't be a bandwidth hog, being a guest and all. But books like this are a thrill to me, and it reminded me that when I do my book on the SCO saga, if it ever ends, pant pant, I'd love to do something like this, if I could find a graphic artist I could work well with creatively.

The comic book is on copyright law and what documentary filmmakers go through as far as clearances are concerned. But if you want to read it as a clear explanation of how the law works right now, particularly how fair use works, for example, you surely can. I can see using this book in classes in schools and universities. I would be willing to bet someone will think to present a copy to their Congresscritter. Or read it just for fun. It is brilliant and I enjoyed it tremendously.

They must have done something right to get positive reviews from both Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing and Brandt Goldstein of the Wall Street Journal:

“Bound By Law lays out a sparkling, witty, moving and informative story about how the eroded public domain has made documentary filmmaking into a minefield.” -Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing.net

“Bound by Law translates law into plain English and abstract ideas into ‘visual metaphors.’ So the comic's heroine, Akiko, brandishes a laser gun as she fends off a cyclopean 'Rights Monster' - all the while learning copyright law basics, including the line between fair use and copyright infringement.” -Brandt Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal online

OK, they didn't ask me. But here's my blurb:

I love this book. Read it. Buy it. Give it to your favorite IP Neanderthal." - PJ, Groklaw

: )

The three law professors are:

James Boyle, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School and one of the founders of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, and a board member of Creative Commons. You know him best, probably, from his columns in Financial Times.

Next, Keith Aoki is the cartoonist and I note a declared lover of Scott McCloud's work too, not to mention Al Capp's and others from the 1960s, as well as being influenced by contempories like McCloud, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Jamie Hernandez. Aoki eventually went to law school and is also now the Philip H. Knight Professor of law at the University of Oregon School of Law, where he specializes in intellectual property law. He also plays bass for The Garden Weasels, "a band that is generally described as being 'pretty good considering it is made up entirely of law professors'."

The third attorney is Jennifer Jenkins, who is director of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, where she heads the "Arts project" and teaches a seminar on IP, the Public Doman and Free Speech. She was one of the lawyers who defended the publisher of Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone," a parody of "Gone With the Wind," a case that was a pivotal decision regarding rights to parody copyrighted characters and scenes under US copyright law's fair use umbrella. The book refers to the case along with a number of major fair use cases.

On the About the Authors page it says that Boyle and Jenkins wrote the text, but it was designed by all of its authors "in innumerable, hilarious and occasionally manic conference calls" and then drawn by Aoki, who, his co-authors say, "is far too talented to be a law professor."

The book was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Thank you, Rockefeller Foundation. This was a very good use of your money. I loved this book, and I believe it will make a difference. Give it to every confused Copyright Overreacher you know, by all means. Well. Not all. Don't send anything to SCOfolk. It's too late. They won't get it, I dare say, and they'll turn around and misread your good motives and accuse you of DDoSing them or something silly ("Linux zealots send 50,000 copies of Bound by Law? to SCO headquarters -- SCO execs now armed and dangerous.") See? We don't need headlines like that. Leave those folks alone so they can drift off into the sunset on their little chunk of melting ice without disturbance of any kind.

Why didn't the three professors just write another scholarly paper for a law review expressing the thoughts in the book? They wanted to reach a broader audience. "For some strange reason," the authors explain, "none of our intended audiences seem eager to read scholarly law review articles. What's more, there is something perverse about explaining an essentially visual and frequently surreal reality in gray, lawyerly prose. Finally, what could better illustrate the process we describe than a work which has to feature literally hundreds of copyrighted works in order to tell its story, a living exercise in fair use?"

Another deep purpose was to help young people understand that there are good things about copyright law too, not just restrictions (see page 30, for example), and to express that much of what is going on with demands for payments and clearances have nothing to do with the law as it stands but are rather "a manifestation of a 'permissions culture' premised on the belief that copyright gives its owners the right to demand payment for every type of usage, no matter its length, or its purpose, or the context in which it is set. But that is not, and never has been the law."

The book encourages readers to understand how fair use works so they will be empowered to know how to make use of their fair use rights, and not just cave in to aggressive copyright overreachers.

They also explain a bit about how trademark law works (see page 48) and what your rights are there. Lawyers have been known to be aggressive. It's what they do. But it doesn't necessarily mean they are right. Look at SCO. There are resources at the end of the book, including a reference to an organization that provides legal representation to artists.

They add that while they are "stodgy believers in the copyright system", that law is not an end in itself. It is supposed to be a tool to promote creation and distribution of knowledge and culture. That is its Constitutional goal, and in that, they state, it is failing in the digital age:

"But from the depths of our stodginess comes this little message -- the system appears to have gone astray, to have lost sight of its original goal."

The book explains it all, including the last retrospective lengthening of the copyright term. Happily, they say this is the first in a series that Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain plans dealing with the effects of IP on art and culture. I'd love to see one on patent law. That'd be funny if you just listed some of the patents. There's a standup comic in New York who reads patent applications as part of his act. No. Really. It's funny. Put some of that stuff in a comic book, and you'll be on the floor. Maybe then somebody will get it that we are destroying the ability to be creative. Everyone is concentrating so hard on protecting those who already created something, they are forgetting about the next creative souls, who need something to work with and don't have $10,000 for a license to use a ten-second clip of a song.

This book is not an anti-copyright book, nor will it support ideas some few may have that the solution to a law you don't like is to violate it. These are still IP lawyers, after all. But they do present the need for a better balance, what they end up calling a cultural environmental movement. Traditionally, they say, we had a "thin layer of intellectual property protection surrounding a large and rich public domain. It didn't cover very much, and it didn't cover it for very long. Now, the balance between what is and isn't protected has been upset. Copyright law may no longer serve the interests of creators." The protection is now so long, it "effectively ropes off most of 20th century culture."

One of the characters in the book looks like Jamie Boyle -- I had the pleasure of meeting him at a conference once. And look on page 21 for a drawing of Larry Lessig as the Statue of Liberty. ("Give me your wired, remixing masses, yearning to be free," it says on the base, with the happy double C logo of Creative Commons.) The book is fun and funny, despite its serious purpose, and I think you are going to love it.

You can read it online, and you can also buy it here, where you'll find a link to ordering it for $5.95 plus shipping from Amazon. There are discounted rates for use in educational settings and for those buying in bulk, only $4.00 per book, including shipping.


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