Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The school district’s bold copyright policy

The Lebo Citizens blog is reporting about the copyright policy advertised on the school district’s web site. In case you’re wondering what the fuss is about, here’s the policy, in full:
Copyright Notice

© 2012 Mt. Lebanon School District. You are welcome and encouraged to access and print material from the Mt. Lebanon School District website (“Website”) at http://www.mtlsd.org for personal use only. Any other copying, posting to another website, distribution, modification, transmission, or dissemination of any of the Website content is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the School District. Please see Terms of Use.
Careful readers will note that I have “violated” the policy by printing it here without the school district’s permission. Am I worried?


As law professor and Blog-Lebo alum Mike Madison helpfully pointed out to Lebo Citizens’ editor, Ms. Gillen, this policy is impotent when it comes to preventing the public from discussing the school district and the things it publishes on its web site. He writes:
This is clearly overbroad and unenforceable. You’d think that the School District would have consulted an actual copyright or trademark lawyer before putting out something so obviously and legally obtuse. Nothing that the School District puts on its website or in its so-called “Terms of Use” can change your rights – or the rights of any other citizen – under the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nothing that the School District puts on its website or in its so-called “Terms of Use” can change the way that copyright law actually works (remember things like the public domain and fair use) or the way that trademark law actually works (things like non-commercial use, nominative use, and fair use – and I’m sorry to lay some legal jargon on you here!).
(That’s only part of Mr. Madison’s response, by the way. You’ll want to read the whole thing; it’s informative and entertaining.)

So how did this policy come to be? My guesses:
  • Somebody tasked with keeping the school’s web site up to date just borrowed a policy from somewhere else without thinking too much about it.
  • The school district is about to offer some e-learning courses of its own and wanted to “protect its IP” with tough-sounding new language.
  • The policy has been this way for a long time, but nobody noticed until something on the page changed recently (perhaps the copyright date?) and Google flagged the page for review.
Any other hypotheses?

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Anonymous Richard Gideon said...

It's difficult to consign any one particular motive to the Mt. Lebanon School District. My personal opinion is that the District's copyright disclaimer was seen by the powers that be on Horsman Drive as having the "side benefit" of reigning in criticism of both the District and its Board. But the actual reason for the poorly worded disclaimer might be a combination of fallout from the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), proposed legislation in both the House and Senate to prevent the theft of intellectual property, and fear of unforeseen consequences in the dissemination of information from the District.

I'll leave the vicissitudes of the law concerning intellectual property to those who are experts in that field, but I will say that the District occasionally has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that it is public body, and its pronouncements may be freely distributed amongst the polity. They apparently don't understand, or don't like, the doctrine of "Fair Use"; a concept well established in America, and without which things like newspapers, magazines, and even Ph.D. dissertations could not exist.

January 18, 2012 10:24 AM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

I completely agree with Mike Madison. Copyright bullying is just one example of many intellectual property abuses that are eroding fair use, prior art, and public domain (all things that should belong to everyone), with help from a corrupt government via legislation, judicial decisions, and treaties.

I could go on for a long time about that, but this isn't the place. What I will say is that kind of behavior needs to experience push-back wherever it is found, such as our dear school district's website.

The Board's copyright language could not be more tone deaf, and it sure does seem to me like cargo-cult legalism, even if written by a lawyer. The thing about lawyers is, if you always do everything they recommend you'll never do anything nice. People should keep their lawyers on leashes at all times.

January 19, 2012 10:47 PM  

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