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nativigating copyrights

Today’s discussion of copyright issues could not have been more relevant to me. I work as a writer and researcher for a company that creates customized curricula for school districts. I am currently working on a particularly challenging project, which involves writing a Global Humanities curriculum for District 79 in NYC. (This is the district for incarcerated and suspended youth.)

Part of the project involves working with Bedford-St. Martin to create a custom anthology for the unit. If you have never worked with publishers before, let me tell you, they live in a different world than the rest of us! We are not allowed to use ANY web sources, because permissioning presents so many challenges–which is why I was so very interested in Creative Commons and in running advanced google searches for material that can be used for commercial purposes. At this point, my project manager has been skittish about even using Project Gutternberg pieces, so I’m at my wits end.

To make matters more complex, Bedford requires us to provide hard copies of any pieces we wish to include in our custom anthology–including works they have already published in their own excellent anthologies! Really. I am not kidding. When I submit hard copies of a text (even something copied from a Bedford text) someone at Bedford will read the hard copy and type it over (after dealing with copyright issues). It’s crazy, and wildly inefficient. Apparently, Bedford’s own work is not readily available to its editors in digital form.

That said, I have been wondering just how long copyrights and intellectual property rights will last. At what point will the digital age render intellectual property rights irrelevant? I must ask Larry Lessig about that…..

Case in point:  My children (ages 11 and 13) have recently gotten into old X-Files episodes, which we have been ordering from Netflix. Tonight during dinner, we watched an old episode together. One scene opens with a close-up of a diver statue at the bottom of an aquarium. I hadn’t seen this episode in years, but I DID just teach The Graduate in my film class last semester. That shot of the diver statue is incredibly famous in The Graduate, and the X-Files clearly–and in a very cheeky way–referenced it. However, they changed its significance. In the film, the statue underscores how trapped Dustin Hoffman’s character feels in the literally black-and-white upper-middle class suburban world into which he has graduated. In the X-Files episode, the statue references the last thing a character saw when his crooked cop partner drowned him in his own fish tank.  So, plagiarism? Copyright infringement? Parody? Tribute? Maybe any of those, but certainly not coincidence.

p.s. Pet peeve issue of the day (I’m sorry!): So many speakers have said “alumni” when they really mean “alumnus.”  Alumni is the plural form, and “alumnus” is singular. Thus, I am an alumnus from the University of Delaware, but my husband, Joe Biden,  and I together are alumni.


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