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A big fat index term

Andy Giffith and Don Knotts
By CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A few months ago, a law professor read a short copyright update that I wrote for an ALA Washington Office briefing packet. She contacted me and said she liked the brief, and could she use it for a conference she was attending? “Of course you can,” I replied. Then she asked if I was going to the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) conference. If so, we should meet. (I really beamed then because this invitation was coming from a pretty well-known intellectual property professor!)

Curious, I looked at the program for the AIPLA conference. AIPLA’s motto is “Serving America’s Legal and Creative Community.” They are a membership organization of practicing lawyers, most who seem to be affiliated with law firms that specialize in intellectual property. Not my normal crowd, but I’m always eager to learn more about copyright, so I looked at the “Conference at a Glance” page for copyright programs. It read:

“Copyright – See Anti-counterfeiting and Anti-piracy”

Copyright was subsumed into what appeared to be an already engorged anti-piracy category. (There was only one copyright program – an update from the US Copyright Office.)

After the initial eye-rolling, I wasn’t surprised. After all, these are lawyers who come to their professional conferences to learn more about representing the interests of the “creative community” and that community is on an anti-piracy bandwagon like none ever seen before. As earlier reported in the New York Times and here, the Sony security breach revealed that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was pursuing other legal means to enact the failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation of 2011.

“Piracy” (rather than infringement) is a strategic term to use. It resonates. It sounds scary and dramatic, and people like “drama” – especially Congress. The meaning of the word “piracy” is clear in all of its evilness. Piracy is coupled with counterfeiting, which evokes consumer fraud, bad prescription drugs, and bootleg DVDs. No one likes piracy except pirates.

With so much attention directed to the piracy meme, the other side of copyright—the part about the importance of user rights to information and the public interest—is like some old and tired episode of The Andy Griffith Show. And after all, what is the public interest anyway? It is a term thrown around to mean all kinds of things (whatever you like actually). Why would copyright have anything to do with the public interest? You have to understand the history of U.S. copyright law to know its importance.

Copyright is meant to be a policy for all people. People will benefit if information, knowledge and creativity are widely distributed through incentives that (hopefully) go directly creators and authors. I like to say the copyright is about the advancement of knowledge and learning and the explosion of creativity and innovation that it enables. But then again, what do I know? I still think those old TV shows are much better than reality TV.

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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.


  1. Two typos in the final paragraph, lines 2 and 3: directly “to” creators and authors; and, say “that” copyright.

  2. Great catches Faithe! Thanks.

  3. Deb Lawley Deb Lawley

    One thing that never seems to come up in these discussions is that copyright doesn’t protect creators and authors, who are often tricked or coerced into signing away their rights to publishers and big media companies like Sony. The people who are making the big bucks from intellectual property are not the creators of the property, but rather they are themselves pirates who scared, tricked, or otherwise snatched the rights away from the real creators.

  4. Carrie Russell Carrie Russell

    I agree. At a hearing I attended some months back, a musician was testifying about her concerns about piracy. She said piracy was hurting her record sales and that she had trouble paying her bills. Then she said something “plus I owe the record company over 10,000 dollars.” What a great contract (but maybe typical?) It will take a long time to pay back the record company and start to see any profits.

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