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Copyright trolling: Make money by scaring people

Complete Copyright
From Carrie’s book, Complete Copyright.

Halloween has passed (and unfortunately a quick scan of the office confirms that my work colleagues did not end up with extra candy this year). But copyright trolls can make every day scarier than Halloween for some people. Here’s how: Threaten a school or library by alleging copyright infringement. “If you do not cease the alleged infringing activity, the rights holder will have no other choice than to take the matter to court. It would behoove the school or library to pay a $2,000 fine instead.”

When an underfunded non-profit educational institution learns that an (often) well-heeled company wants to sue, it’s natural to get freaked out. As a result, libraries settle the issue out of court by paying up and promising never to do the bad thing again. Thus rights holders can collect a nice little sum just by writing a letter, avoiding all that goes into litigating a copyright infringement case. The rights holder never has to prove their claim. We never know if a court would have found the activity infringing. Heck, we never know if the company claiming to be the rights holder is actually the rights holder.

The worst thing? Educators and libraries live in copyright uncertainty and fear. Rumors and misinformation make educators more likely to cave, accept the punishment, and basically admit guilt. “Did you hear that Kramer Middle School was sued for copyright infringement?” School educators, librarians, and administrators begin to fear that they too might face the same situation. After all, do we really know that we are not infringers? How different are we from Kramer Middle School? Over time, the library or school starts to be a lot more cautious about copyright, often over-complying with the law. People wonder “Can the principal read a poem aloud during assembly? Can children sing ‘Happy Birthday?’ What about YouTube? Can we ever use YouTube in class?” Unsure of the answers, educators and librarians learn to just say “no.” No one wants to be a test case.

Is there a solution? Yes, several.  First of all “buck up!” Actual copyright lawsuits against schools and librarians are rare. There are provisions in the copyright law that safeguard educators and librarians from statutory damages when they believed their use of a protected work was fair. The Eleventh Amendment shields institutions funded by the state from statutory damages. In other words, there is little money that can be awarded to the rights holder even if the case goes their way. Second, don’t fall for these hijinks. Just because a rights holder says you are an infringer does not mean that you are.  More importantly, learn about fair use which is the most important thing you should know about copyright.  This alone will help you better serve your community as a professional committed to the school’s educational mission and access to information for all.


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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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