‘Bound by Law: Tales from the Public Domain’

(Trapped in a struggle she didn’t understand; By day a filmmaker….by night she fought for fair use!)

Could you ever imagine there being a graphic novel on Fair Use? Surprise, surprise! Some law scholars actually thought it to be a feasible idea and created this unusual piece of work. James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins and Keith Aoki, from the Duke Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, being passionate copyright enthusiasts as well as keen artists published a graphic novel titled, ‘Bound by law? Tales from the public domain’ in 2011. All three authors are not only keen intellects of law but are also avid writers, painters, musicians and artists.

The reason behind the creation of this graphic novel was to spike an interest amongst people and to create awareness about copyrights – the rights available under the law, how to protect a work and how to produce a work in a manner not amounting to infringement. The novel revolves around a filmmaker, Akiko, who seeks legal advice before releasing her documentary film, “A Day in the Life of New York.” Since her film contains music, art and literary work taken from already existing works, she needed to be sure that no third party rights were violated.

This novel comprising of three main characters, Akiko and two lawyers, draws attention to the various rights vested with a copyright owner/holder, works that can be copyrighted, those in the public domain and so on. The lawyers act as educators and communicate to Akiko the risks involved in making a film and the due care that needs be taken before releasing the work to the public.

The novel commences with Akiko absolutely ecstatic about her film but at the same time anxious about the laws governing her film and the source material. By illustrating through relatable examples from the entertainment industry, the lawyers are able to convey to Akiko the rights held in various music clips, dialogues, literary work, etc., for which she would have to obtain a license. By the middle of the novel, it is evident that Akiko becomes flustered at handling the infinite copyrights and views copyright as the ‘rights monster.’ However, through the course of the novel, the lawyers discuss the concept of ‘Fair Use’ with her and how she could screen her film in compliance with the doctrine.

The novel, which is in the public domain, covers several significant and pertinent copyright concepts. Through the lawyers, the underlying purpose of copyright being a law intended to promote creativity is highlighted, the importance of licensing is emphasised, the right of publicity is also touched upon. However, the most relevant aspect of all, doctrine of Fair Use and how it serves as an exception to the copyright laws is discussed.

Many people consider modern copyright laws to be too strict, as they do not permit the easy access of works to create something new. While the fundamental and underlying principle that only expressions and not ideas or fact can be copyrighted continue to hold good, there are quite a few practices and restrictions especially the ‘permissions culture’ which people find acts as a deterrent to their ability to create new work. To ensure that there is no exploitation of power by the copyright holder on one hand and that the public does not resort to piracy on the other, the doctrine of Fair Use under Title 17 of the US Code has been incorporated as per which, by complying with a four factor test. Under this, certain acts may not amount to copyright infringement; specifically, parodies, criticisms, commentary and news reporting.

‘Bound by law? Tales from the public domain’ is a unique contribution as it educates the majority of the public on the complex aspects of copyright law. The novel is a short and easy read for any person who has a basic idea about copyright law but would seem rather overwhelming to someone who is exposed to these concepts and rights for the first time. There is a lot to absorb in one go and some aspects could have been elucidated better to ensure clarity in the reader’s mind. The writing style, the art and the sequence of conveying the information are commendable but the only suggestion is perhaps the novel could have been split up to form a mini-series on ‘fair use and copyright’.

To read the graphic novel please visit https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/

Authored by Tarini Siddhartha.

With the support of the BananaIP Entertainment Law Division. For more information please reach out to us on [email protected]. Our experts will respond to you at the earliest.