As all readers of the Chronicle will know, the law of intellectual property has become a critical issue for university teachers and scholars. Copyright used to be something we thought about, if at all, when we wondered how much of a single book we could Xerox for our coursepack, or perhaps when we wondered how much of a writer’s correspondence we could use in a book manuscript.
These problems have not gone away, and, indeed, with the onset of electronic reserves (used in lieu of coursepacks, if we are honest), some of the old problems have become more urgent and complicated. But the recent news that the House I.P. subcommittee is introducing a new copyright act called “Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property (PRO IP)” should remind us of the large economic forces with which the academy’s chattering class contends. The new legislation, which has little chance of passage, establishes both civil and criminal penalties for infringement, the result of lobbying and drafting by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry of America (RIAA).
Time was when these organizations did not seem relevant to our work as academics, but now that they are suing our students and threatening our universities, we can no longer ignore them. I am the only academic member of the board of the Copyright Clearance Center, which licenses most of our universities to photocopy material protected by copyright, and which is now trying to do the same thing for electronic intellectual property. There are many reasons why teachers and scholars should support the copyright regime — and there are many reasons why they need to be reminded that the law of intellectual property is a political act, so that if we don’t like what we have, we need to pay consistent attention to what the lawmakers are doing. At the moment, the academy has neither a strong nor a consistent voice in the process. And that is just plain shortsighted.