Cornell's Tracy Mitrano Details Copyright Problems Facing Higher Education

Tracy Mitrano
Tracy Mitrano
Although many people might think of copyright issues as being contemporary, they emerged in legal discourse as early as the 16th century after the invention of the printing press and have been adapting to technological innovations ever since. In her April 29 lecture, Cornell University Professor Tracy Mitrano discussed “Copyright Conundrums: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” and addressed what she believes to be the most pressing copyright problems facing higher education. Mitrano’s talk was part of the Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture series which was established in 2005 to honor Hamilton alumnus Richard “Dick” Couper ’44. 

The first legal document that addressed copyrights was the Stationers Act in 1557, which designated a single brand of stationary as having the “exclusive right” to publish official documents from the British Crown. In 1710, the Statute of Anne was the first act that recognized an author’s right to his works by establishing a policy of “limited rights” for 14 years after publication and the possibility of additional 14. 

Copyright law has existed in the United States since the ratification of the Constitution. There were basically two schools of thought at the Constitutional Convention—one led by Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to avoid monopolies by abandoning the idea of exclusive rights, and the other led by George Washington, who advocated for a robust public domain, which he thought would facilitate a flow of knowledge that the republic needed. What resulted was a compromise in Article I, Section VIII, which granted exclusive rights but for limited times. 

There have been several pieces of legislation since the Constitutional Convention that have expanded the copyright provisions enumerated in the Constitution. The Copyright Act of 1970 set up an arduous registration process for attaining copyrights that effectively discouraged applications. Campaigning by artists and authors such as Mark Twain, who argued that production of creative artists would be discouraged from publishing if there was not adequate protection in place, led to expansions of term limits. 

The Copyright Law of 1976 and the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 expanded term limits even further, so that individuals now have ownership over their work for life plus 50 years, and corporations have ownership for 75 years. 

One thing that copyright legislation has struggled to keep up with has been the Internet. The “fair use” clause that was codified in 1976 described, in terms of the nature and amount of the work reproduced as well as the nature of the use and its market effect. The relatively ambiguous language in the fair use clause has given rise to a lot of controversy over publication of copyrighted materials on the Internet. 

Specifically, peer-to-peer filesharing servers like Napster have been found not to apply to the fair use clause because of the market effect of widespread sharing.
Institutions of higher education have recently had to contend with copyright issues that many regard as unfair. Because of the requirements for tenure in many institutions, professors are encouraged to give away their scholarly work to publishers, who then sell published volumes back to institutions at exorbitantly high prices. 

Colleges and universities also have to contend with copyrighted texts distributed at large to students by their professors. The American Association of Publishers has expressed concern that adequate compensation is not being given to authors and editors when articles in larger volumes are photocopied and handed out or accessed online. 

These are just a few of the conundrums faced in copyright laws enforcement today. Because media is ever-evolving, the vehicles for publication of music, videos, and texts are always changing. We live in the information age, Mitrano emphasized, and the future of copyright law must lie in reform if it is to remain effective.

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