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Copyright at the International Communications Association meeting

By Pat Aufderheide
At the International Communications Association annual conference in San Francisco at the end of May -- thousands of communications scholars from all over the world! -- we got to raise a question that affects both media scholars and anyone making media about our world: what's fair in quoting from copyrighted material? This problem has hit media literacy scholars hard, since their core job is analyzing popular culture. And the problems of media literacy scholars are increasingly shared by anyone who wants to teach critical approaches to communication in any discipline. At an afternoon panel, Pat Aufderheide discussed why copyright law enables quotation as 'Fair Use,' followed by MIT's Henry Jenkins discussing how his own courses are not available on MIT OpenCourseware because of the university's fear of Fair Use. Temple's Renee Hobbs discussed research that she is executing with Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, using funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, about the problems of media literacy scholars and practitioners around the quotation of popular culture.

Hobbs showed how media literacy teachers often contort their own creative process because of copyright fears. For instance, sometimes they avoid or 'try not to use too much' copyrighted material in their teaching materials, even though they are teaching about the media. Sometimes teachers use copyrighted material but are afraid to show anyone else, including their colleagues, their own syllabi or curricula. Sometimes they tell their students to avoid using copyrighted material of any kind in their own work, thus limiting their students' creative approach to popular culture critique as well. Media literacy teachers, it seems, are trying to do their work with their hands tied.

Henry Jenkins raised the hope that media literacy teachers could take the lead in devising a code of practice - a process that Hobbs hopes to lead drawing upon MacArthur funds during the following year.

Some attendees wanted to know why the researchers hadn't pursued the attitudes of lawyers rather than of the practice community. 'Because, ultimately, practice makes practice,' Aufderheide responded. 'Lawyers and judges decide upon what is possible based on what creative communities actually practice.'

The research that Hobbs discussed is expected to be released in September.