Copyright’s Twilight Zone

Jacqueline Lipton is a Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. She is Co-Director for the Center of Law, Technology, and the Arts, and the Associate Director of the Frederick K Cox International Law Center.

In the Web 2.0 era, copyright law has become too blunt an instrument to deal with the intricacies necessary to balance the interests of multiple stakeholders in a copyrighted work.  The relevant parties – often with diverse interests in a copyright work – include the original author/creator (such as a writer, poet, or songwriter), the commercial publishers or producers who may or may not be the same as the commercial distributors, and the recipients/audiences of the work. 

To make matters even more complex, Web 2.0 technologies – such as blogs, wikis and online social networks – enable the recipient/audience group to themselves become producers of derivative works based on the original more easily than ever before.  Interactive and participatory technologies enable digital fan fiction collectives with associated blogs, multi-media mashups and remixes, and fan websites that involve user-generated content often in digital audio and video formats.  While copyright law typically protects the interests of the commercial publishers, producers, and distributors, it does little to accommodate the interests of original creators and their fans in using the protected works.

As well as posing challenges for copyright law, participatory Web 2.0 cultures provide much anecdotal evidence as to how the underrepresented stakeholder groups feel about appropriate and inappropriate uses of copyrighted works.  Many authors of popular fiction works maintain blogs where they actively engage in discussions with their fans about preferred uses of their works.  Fans also maintain their own websites where they comment on ways in which they feel they should be allowed to use aspects of a copyrighted work, like publicity stills and news stories relating to the work.  This anecdotal evidence from the blogosphere has been largely overlooked to date in debates about how copyright law might better reflect the realities of Web 2.0 cultures.  Interestingly, many of the apparent norms developing in the blogosphere do contemplate reserving a space for authors, commercial publishers and distributors to make appropriate profits from copyrighted works, while reserving to fans the ability to comment on and build on those works in a non-commercial arena.

In a forthcoming article in the Maryland Law Review, I use several case studies related to the popular Twilight book and movie franchise as a lens through which to investigate the lessons digital copyright law might learn from emerging norms in the blogosphere.