Comics and Copyright

June 1, 2006
Copyright illustrated: detail of comic book cover

Copyright illustrated: detail of comic book cover. Bound by Law © 2006 Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins

Taking an unorthodox approach to teaching law, three law professors have collaborated on a comic book that explores the impact of copyright on creativity and examines both the benefits and costs of copyright in a digital age.

Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain was co-authored by James Boyle, William Neal Reynolds Professor of law; Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain; and Keith Aoki, a professor at the University of Oregon Law School. Aoki also drew the comic, which features a classically curved and muscled heroine shooting a documentary about a day in the life of New York.

While the treatment may be entertaining, the subject matter--threats to cultural history and documentary filmmaking posed by a "permissions culture" and the erosion of the "fair use" doctrine--is serious. One "tale" described in the comic involves Eyes on the Prize, the great civil-rights documentary that was pulled from circulation after the filmmakers' rights to music and footage had expired. In another real-life situation, a filmmaker is told she has to pay $10,000 to clear the rights to the Rocky theme song, captured incidentally in her footage as a cell-phone ring-tone.

"Many young artists today only experience copyright as an obstacle, a source of incomprehensible demands for payment, cease-and-desist letters, legal transaction costs," Boyle says. "This is a shame, because copyright can be a valuable tool for artists and creators of all kinds--even for those who are trying to share their work without charge."

Copyright illustrated: detail of comic book cover
Copyright illustrated: sample page
(click for larger image). Bound by Law © 2006 Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins

Copyright illustrated: sample page
(click for larger image). Bound by Law © 2006 Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins

"Artists often form their impressions about intellectual property based on rumors and one-sided sources," adds Jenkins. "This can lead to self-censorship, restrictive clearance practices, and legal misunderstandings. We want to give people better information, to encourage them to educate themselves further.

"The ultimate goal is to bring about a more balanced intellectual-property system that enables artists to protect their works but also ensures the availability of raw materials for future creation. That's not just an issue for artists, it's an issue for all of us."

Why a comic book? "We care about the subject and, for some strange reason, none of our intended audiences seemed eager to read scholarly law-review articles," Boyle says. "What's more, there is something perverse about explaining a visual and frequently surreal reality in gray, lawyerly prose."

Bound by Law?, which will be available in stores later this year, is the first in a series planned by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. The next in the series will deal with music and copyright. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation funded the project, which is published under a Creative Commons license.