Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Copyright and Creativity in Communication Research

Annenberg alumnus Bill Herman ('09, now teaching in the Film and Media Department at Hunter College), drafted the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Fair Use and Academic Freedom of the International Communication Association titled: Clipping Our Own Wings: Copyright and Creativity in Communication Research. Way to go Committee, and especially our Bill!


Communication scholars need access to copyrighted material, need to make unlicensed uses of them in order to do their research, and often—especially within the United States—have the legal right to do so. But all too often they find themselves thwarted.

A survey of communication scholars’ practices, conducted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Fair Use and Academic Freedom in the International Communication Association (ICA), reveals that copyright ignorance and misunderstanding hamper distribution of finished work, derail work in progress, and most seriously, lead communication researchers simply to avoid certain kinds of research altogether.

Nearly half the respondents express a lack of confidence about their copyright knowledge in relation to their research. Nearly a third avoided research subjects or questions and a full fifth abandoned research already under way because of copyright concerns. In addition, many ICA members have faced resistance from publishers, editors, and university administrators when seeking to include copyrighted works in their research. Scholars are sometimes forced to seek copyright holders’ permission to discuss or criticize copyrighted works. Such permission seeking puts copyright holders in a position to exercise veto power over the publication of research, especially research that deals with contemporary or popular media.

These results demonstrate that scholars in communication frequently encounter confusion, fear, and frustration around the unlicensed use of copyrighted material. These problems, driven largely by misinformation and gatekeeper conservatism, inhibit researchers’ ability both to conduct rigorous analyses and to develop creative methodologies for the digital age.

Communication scholars can benefit by developing best practices standards for the most ample and flexible copyright exemption permitting unlicensed use of copyrighted materials: fair use. While non-U.S. members will not be able to apply this doctrine directly to work done outside the United States, having this interpretation established for U.S. scholars will expand opportunities within a large area of communication research, encourage international scholars to explore their own nations’ copyright exemptions, and provide an important benchmark for non-U.S. scholars looking for models as copyright reform proceeds.

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