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Questions & Answers — Copyright Column

by | Jul 18, 2022 | 0 comments

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Column Editor:  Will Cross  (Director of the Open Knowledge Center and Head of Information Policy, NC State University Libraries)   ORCID: 0000-0003-1287-1156

QUESTION:  A university administrator asks, “What is the CCB, and how will it impact my campus community?”

ANSWER:  In past columns we have discussed the “Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act,” or “CASE Act.”  The Act creates a Copyright Claims Board (CCB), a non-judicial tribunal housed at the Copyright Office, to decide copyright infringement cases.  The CCB can award monetary relief of up to $30,000 per proceeding.  Early library engagement with CASE/CCB focused on an opt-out option that permitted libraries to opt out of participation in CCB claims and instead require the copyright owner to re-file the action in federal court if the copyright owner wishes to continue to pursue the matter.  After active engagement from the library community, the Copyright Office ruled that library opt-out also applied to library employees acting within the scope of their duties.

In the spring of 2022, the Copyright Claims Board was launched at:  https://ccb.gov/.  As of this writing it has not begun to hear claims but is expected to do so in the near future.  In response, universities have begun to develop informational pages and libguides about the CCB to prepare everyone on campus to understand what the CCB is, how it applies to them, and how to respond if they receive a notice under the law.  In order to support this work, Rachael Samberg, the Scholarly Communication Officer & Program Director at the University of California, Berkeley and Katherine Klosek, the Director of Information Policy at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) have developed a new “CASE Act Toolkit.”  The Toolkit provides an overview of the CASE Act and the new CCB.  It also spells out which stakeholders on campus may be impacted by the new law and provides guidance on university responses including the decision by libraries to opt out and sample communication from libraries to library staff.  You can find the full toolkit, including a set of checklists for responding and model text here:  https://www.arl.org/case-act-toolkit/.

QUESTION:  A faculty scholar asks, “I heard something about a TV show that was going to be canceled due to issues with copyright and an NFT.  What is an NFT, and how does it relate to copyright?”

ANSWER:  The specific news story that made the rounds in May of 2022 dealt with the actor and writer Seth Green, perhaps best-known for roles in the late 1990s and early 2000s such as Scott Evil in the Austin Powers films or as the character of Oz in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In recent years, Green has worked primarily as a writer and producer and in 2022 he was developing a show based around a non-fungible token (NFT) called Bored Ape #8398, which he had licensed for a television series.  Unfortunately, Green was phished (tricked into revealing confidential information) and the NFT was taken and unlawfully sold to a third party.

For those unfamiliar with NFTs, they are basically unique digital items such as images or videos that are tracked on the blockchain.  You can read a lighthearted overview of NFTs here:  https://www.theverge.com/22310188/nft-explainer-what-is-blockchain-crypto-art-faq.  For now, it is enough to know that Green had a unique digital asset that was taken without his lawful consent and sold to a third party.  Since Green’s show was based on the NFT, there was concern that the show could not go forward. 

In order to explore and explain this case, Cornell law professor James Grimmelmann shared a lengthy discussion about NFT ownership and how copyright and real property law might address Green’s plight.  Grimmelmann argues that NFT’s are clearly property under the law and that the hacker “stole” the NFT so that they had possession while Green remained the rightful owner.  This issue is complicated by the technical nuances of the blockchain and by some specific licensing language, but Grimmelmann concludes that Green is still the lawful owner.

The claim of the third party who purchased the NFT from the hacker is more complicated and Grimmelmann walks through the challenges in sorting out whether the purchase was done in good faith as understood in a variety of potential jurisdictions that may be relevant to this decentralized digital asset.  Further, Grimmelmann argues that the real crux of the issue is that the license attached to the NFT should (but does not) spell out ownership, sublicensing, and many other fundamental issues.  In short, he concludes, “NFT copyright license needs to deal with the possibility of theft.  There are numerous different ways that a license could try to salvage the situation.  But the BAYC license doesn’t even try.  To repeat myself, it is not fit for purpose.”  You can read Grimmelmann’s full discussion here:  https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1529462029416902658.html.

This discussion of NFTs is especially relevant to university communities since a number of university stakeholders and institutions have decided to enter the NFT marketplace themselves.  Faculty such as University of Kentucky law professor Brian Frye have released NFT’s as part of their scholarship on law and technology.  In 2021, the University of Berkeley auctioned off a NFT based on the Nobel Prize-winning research behind cancer immunotherapy for about $54,360 — or 22 ETH (Ether), the cryptocurrency in which it was sold — netting the campus about $50,000.  Assuming others follow suit and explore releasing their own NFTs, academic authors and institutions would be well-advised to follow Professor Grimmelmann’s advice and make sure their legal language and the relevant policies are in order.

QUESTION:  A librarian asks, “Who owns copyright in an open textbook created by a faulty author with funding and support from the library?”

ANSWER:  This seemingly-simple question is the focus of a recent article that I co-authored with Lindsey Gumb, a librarian and open educator working at Roger Williams University.  The question is an important one since open educational resources (OER), by definition, require an open license that must be assigned by the rightsholder.

Unfortunately, copyright law does not provide a simple answer.  Ownership in academic works has always been a complex issue.  Of course, the default presumption in the law is that works made as part of employment are often “works made for hire” that belong to the institution.  This assumption, however, has historically been altered by an “educator’s” or “teacher’s exception” that grants faculty the rights to their own academic work in some cases.  This “educator’s exception” was not included in the 1976 Copyright Act and is likely not in force today so ownership of academic works today is generally defined instead by local institutional policies.  These policies often describe a baseline of ownership by faculty (but not always by staff or students) that can be changed in cases where faculty creators receive unusual support from the institution such as a financial support, course release, and so forth.

In order to map out how local policies may differ, Gumb and I reviewed policies for 109 institutions that belong to the Open Education Network, one of the largest and most active open education communities.  We also conducted a survey of people at these institutions who engage in support for open education, asking them how they understood and applied their local policies.  What we found was that many policies took significantly different approaches to ownership, especially in cases where the university library provided funding and support for OER development.  On the ground, open educators and those that support OER often relied on informal agreements and a presumed set of assumptions about “traditional” practice.

In many cases, these shared expectations were enough to support successful collaboration and the creation of a new, openly-licensed resource.  In too many cases, unfortunately, confusion about ownership led to issues that harmed or even halted a promising project.  In many others, it was not clear that the actual owner under the institutional policy had assigned any open license, leading to nominal OER that did not, in fact, have a valid license attached.  We conclude that this is a significant issue that should be addressed either in updated policies or at least in clear licenses or memoranda of understanding (MOU).  You can read the article here:  https://www.jcel-pub.org/article/view/14946.

Following up:  I wanted to share two other resources as an addendum to recent items discussed in this column.  In the last issue I wrote about the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer and his impact on libraries and copyright.  In addition to the resources I shared there, ARL has also recently released a wonderful reflection from Jonathan Band, who, for many years, has represented and advised the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) on copyright issues.  Focusing closely on the two most significant copyright opinions by Breyer, Band’s reflection paints a compelling picture of Breyer’s impact on copyright law as well as his “deep understanding of the impact of copyright on libraries, an appreciation for the historic mission of libraries in promoting cultural heritage and making information accessible to the public, and an effort to apply the copyright law in a manner that does not interfere with this mission.”  The reflection is succinct but quite insightful and definitely worth a read:  https://www.arl.org/news/justice-breyer-copyright-and-libraries-a-paper-by-jonathan-band/.

In addition, I regularly work to share new copyright resources in this column and a new resource has emerged that I wanted to be sure received wide attention.  The Open Copyright Education Advisory Network (OCEAN) is a new initiative designed to address cultural heritage professionals’ need for up-to-date, reliable, and consistent copyright education.  The advisory board is made up of leaders in academic copyright education and they are sharing course recording freely for anyone to use.  You can find out more about OCEAN at their website:  https://sites.google.com/umich.edu/oceancopyright/home?authuser=0.  

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