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Copyright looks different from Jamaican eyes

Street in Montigo Bay, Jamaica
Street in Montigo Bay, Jamaica

This week, the Re:create Coalition of which ALA is a founding member held two events: One highlighting academic research in copyright held at Howard University School of Law; and a half day of panel discussions on “Modernizing Copyright Law for Today’s Reality.”

The program on academic research hosted by the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice at Howard University School of Law was a treat because not one sound bite was uttered. One gets so much of the sound bite thing working and living in DC that is gets tiresome. You can imagine. At the IP social justice event, discussion centered on progressive ways to think about copyright in today’s global, digital information society. One speaker was Larisa Kingston Mann who discussed her research in the music and dance world of Jamaicans. Jamaicans living in poverty are creators that operate in a totally unregulated environment, not guided by western copyright law. This is not a big surprise when you reflect on the colonial history of Jamaica. Why would Jamaicans follow laws established by their oppressors meant to assimilate them in western ways?

Jamaicans produce mass street dances where individuals can become celebrities by dancing or singing with no expectation of compensation. Their version of royalties is being mentioned in a song. They openly use copyrighted music and record their own versions over instrumental tracks. Creating an original work as we conceive of it in the dominant copyright paradigm is meaningless because harkening back to works that have already been created and that link to their culture is the value they embrace. Mann’s presentation was fascinating and pointed out that (once again) official policy is far removed from behavior on the ground.

This reminded me of academic authors who want to share their research and do not expect monetary compensation. Instead it is the opinion of their peers that matters. Like the Jamaican creators, their royalties consist of being mentioned in another person’s work in the form of citations. Official copyright policy tends to think of authors only in the commercial context, again far removed from behavior on the ground.

Of course, many academic authors are paid for a living – a circumstance that commercial authors are quick to note. But they are missing the point. “One size fits all” copyright policy is just like the clothing. One size rarely fits all. Copyright law does not recognize the majority of the creators in the world. It favors a specific kind of author unduly focusing on the incentive aspect of copyright rather than on the true purpose—to advance learning.

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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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