Category: Uncategorized

The Next Register of Copyrights

Recently, in the House of Representatives, a bill was introduced called the “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017” to change how the Register of Copyrights is selected.  Why is this position important? Why might the appointment of the Register of Copyrights be critical in determining the future of copyright law in the United States?

History of the Register

Since the appointment of the first Register of Copyrights, Thorvald Solberg, on July 22, 1897, the Register is appointed by and reports to the Librarian of Congress.  The duties of the Register of Copyrights are enumerated in U.S. law, specifically 17 U.S.C. § 701.  These duties include, but are not limited to, advising Congress on copyright matters, conducting studies regarding copyright, and providing “information and assistance to Federal departments and agencies and the Judiciary” on copyright matters.

Why is the Register of Copyrights important?

The Register of Copyrights is the highest-ranking official in the federal government dealing directly and exclusively with copyright.  This position oversees the U.S. Copyright Office, whose mission is “to administer the Nation’s copyright laws for the advancement of the public good; to offer services and support to authors and users of creative works; and to provide expert impartial assistance to Congress, the courts, and executive branch agencies on questions of copyright law and policy.”

In trying to serve these three groups, the public, creators, and Congress, the U.S. Copyright Office encapsulates the national tension over copyright law.  The public – users and consumers of books, music, media, and other creative works – have one set of expectations of copyright law.  Their expectations may include a well-fed and robust public domain, and a simple process for obtaining and utilizing the fair use defense.  The expectations of authors and other creators of works may be very different.  Their expectations may include longer and stricter protections for their copyrighted works, thus keeping the works out of the public domain for a longer time.  Creators may also expect more stringent protection of their works.  Congress can often find itself in the middle of this argument between the public and creators, looking to the Copyright Office, and the Register in particular, for guidance. Continue reading

Using Active Learning to Teach Copyright

What is active learning?

Active learning can “be defined as anything that ‘involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.’”[1]  This is a stark contrast to passive learning, where “students passively receive information from the professor and internalize it through some form of memorization.”[2]  Incorporating active learning can lead to “higher student cognitive outcomes on specific material covered in a class … as opposed to one taught with the passive teaching approach.”[3]  In addition, “[c]lassroom approaches that engage students in ‘active learning’ improve retention of information and critical thinking skills, compared with a sole reliance on lecturing.”[4]  In short, active learning moves the focus from the instructor’s teaching to the students’ learning and improves engagement, retention, and critical thinking.

The Ohio State University’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching maintains a list of active learning strategies that can be employed in both workshops and courses.  The listed strategies range from simple (brainstorming) to complex (simulations), providing ample options to suit an instructor’s teaching style.  We encourage including an active learning strategy into a workshop or class to see how it fits with your teaching style.  While the list of potential active learning activities is almost limitless, there are a few that seem to fit particularly well within the copyright context.  Below are a few examples of those activities and how they can be woven into copyright education.

Active Learning in the Copyright Context

In a copyright workshop, Think-Pair-Share can help participants actively engage with the material.  For example, in a workshop for participants developing online courses, give them time to write down up to three works that they would like to incorporate.  Then have folks pair up and share their copyright challenges, and what they think is the most viable solution.  Finally, ask for a volunteer pair to share their thoughts with the group.  At this point, you could open the discussion up to the whole group, potentially teasing out confusion or misunderstandings.  Then make a few closing comments, clearing up any misunderstandings and offering the sharing pair additional thoughts or suggestions.

If discussion seems too passive, or doesn’t fit with your presentation style, have the students get hands-on with the material.  A presentation on fair use might work best with this style.  Break the group into pairs or smaller groups and give them a scenario and accompanying problem to analyze.  If you can contact attendees in advance, have them bring in works they are using, or would like to use, in their teaching.  The small groups can then walk that particular work, or your provided scenario, through the fair use analysis.  This strategy has the added benefits of 1) allowing attendees to get some of their work done in the workshop and 2) ensuring attendees have gone through at least one fair use analysis on their own.

Readers in the U.K. can utilize Copyright the Card Game in their teaching.  If you live in the U.K., it is a great way to gamify copyright education.  Available for download under Creative Commons’ CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license, the game “takes delegates from copyright basics through to real world scenarios which explore the relationship between licences and copyright fair dealing exceptions.”[5]  Participants use game cards in four suits (Works, Usages, Licenses, and Exceptions) along with pre-made PowerPoint slides to “work through the scenarios presented.”[6]  While there is currently only a version for U.K. law, the idea of gamifying copyright law is incredibly intriguing, hopefully we will see a U.S. version soon.

What active and creative strategies have you used in your copyright education efforts?  Let us know with a comment on this post.  We would love to hear about your successes!



By Marley C. Nelson, Rights Management Specialist, Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries


[1] Bonwell, Charles; Eison, James (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. Information Analyses – ERIC Clearinghouse Products (071), p. 3.  Accessed on 3/8/17 via

[2] N. Michel, J. Cater, and O. Varela, Active Versus Passive Learning Styles: An Empirical Study of Student Learning Outcomes.  Human Resources Development Quarterly, vol. 20, no.4, Winter 2009.  Accessed 3/17/17 via

[3] N. Michel, J. Cater, and O. Varela, page 64.

[4] President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved from on 3/6/17.

[5] Chris Morrison, Naomi Korn, and Jane Secker.  Copyright the Card Game – Instructions.  Copyright 2015 by Chris Morrison, shared via CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

[6] Id.

A Fair Use Week Interview with John Muir

At the Copyright Resources Center, our job is to help members of the Ohio State community understand copyright law and how it affects their work.  This week, we are focusing on Fair Use – because it is Fair Use Week!  If you’d like an introduction to Fair Use Week, check out our earlier blog post for a quick rundown of Fair Use and why we spend an entire week celebrating it.

For Fair Use Week 2017, we wanted to educate ourselves on how Fair Use affects some of our closest clients.  In particular, I spoke with John Muir, a veteran Instructional Designer (ID) who helps design awardwinning online courses for The Ohio State University.  He has almost a decade of experience designing online courses, with the last four years spent in the Office of Distance Education and eLearning at OSU.  As an ID, John not only counsels faculty on designing online educational experiences, but also assists them with populating those online classrooms with content. It is the content piece that has John in frequent communication with the Copyright Resources Center.  John sat down with me to talk about how Fair Use impacts his work as an Instructional Designer.

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Fair Use Week 2017

In the United States, copyright law grants a limited monopoly to the owner of a copyright.  While that limited monopoly is in effect, others may not utilize any of the six exclusive rights of a copyright owner.  Unless, of course, they have permission from the copyright owner or they can rely on an exception.  Fair use is just such an exception.

A popular common law defense for over 100 years, fair use was codified in the Copyright Act of 1976.  While some criticize fair use for being too vague, that same flexibility gives the exception the ability to cover many types of works in many contexts.  In fact, proponents of fair use are so enamored of it that they host an entire week of events to celebrate it and educate the public on its use.

Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week 2017 is February 20th-24th.  At The Ohio State University, we’ll be celebrating with blog posts, Tweets, and a workshop at the Research Commons on Tuesday, February 21st, all focusing on fair use.  In addition, the Association of Research Libraries keeps a running list of all Fair Use Week events, which can be viewed at

The first piece in The Ohio State University’s celebration of Fair Use Week is this blog post.  It gathers almost all of our previous posts regarding fair use into one place, creating a wonderful primer on fair use news and updates over the past several years.  Stay tuned later in the week for a second blog post highlighting how Senior Instructional Designer John Muir has utilized fair use in his work with faculty.

We invite you to browse our collection of fair use blog posts and follow us on Twitter for more fair use events and information (@OSUCopyright).

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An OSU How-To for Licenses and Releases

Creating your own content is a great way to populate a course, presentation, or website with material.  However, if that content creation involves recording others, you will need permission from the people involved to a) record them and b) use their recordings.

Recently, the Copyright Resources Center helped staff at The Ohio State University parse the requirements and procedures surrounding licenses and releases for audio-visual copyrightable content.  The issues that were addressed, and the resources most helpful in resolving them, are described here.  The resources here will be most valuable for those at Ohio State.  For readers outside of Ohio State, the general processes mentioned here may still be helpful.  Similar departments or documents may exist at your institution, and we would highly recommend that you seek them out.

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Debunking Top Copyright Myths: The Myth of the Innocent Infringer

A persistent myth in the world of copyright law is that of the innocent infringer.  This particular myth takes two forms, both of which will be addressed in this post.  The first is the myth of a complete defense, in that if you didn’t know you were infringing someone’s copyright, you can’t be found liable.  The second is a partial defense, in that if you didn’t know you were infringing someone’s copyright, although you may be found liable, you won’t have to pay any damages.

Neither of these is correct.  Where did this myth come from and why does it persist? This is best answered by looking at the history of United States copyright law.  Let’s take a trip in the copyright time machine (CTM)!

The first stop is in 1790.  Back then, being an innocent infringer meant you were not liable for infringement.  The Copyright Act of 1790 required that an infringer be “knowing”[1] with regards to the copyright status of the work.  There was actually a mens rea[2] component to copyright infringement.  Not only would you not have had to pay any damages, but you had not actually committed copyright infringement in the first place.  Which is good, because the statute required that “offenders shall… forfeit and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet which shall be found in his or their possession”[3]Translated into 2015 dollars, that $0.50 could be as much as $47,500[4] per page! This protection afforded innocent infringers was incredibly valuable.

Unfortunately for innocent infringers, those protections have been stripped away over the ensuing versions of United States copyright law.  Jumping back in the CTM, we can skip ahead to 1909, a year of major revision in U.S. copyright law.  The Copyright Act of 1909 removed the “knowing” requirement, making copyright infringement a strict liability offense.  This meant that if someone made an illegal use of a protected work, they had infringed copyright.  Their mental state was irrelevant and innocent infringement was no longer a defense to copyright infringement.  This was the end of innocent infringement as a total defense to liability for copyright infringement.  The 1909 Act did, however, prevent defendants from having to pay any damages if they could show that they were an innocent infringer who was “misled by the omission of the [copyright] notice”[5].  So in that very specific instance of innocent copyright infringement, a defendant could avoid having to pay damages.

Hopping back into the CTM, let’s fast forward to 1989 and the current version of United States copyright law.  Here, we have the Copyright Act of 1976[6], as influenced by the Berne Convention[7].  Copyright infringement is still a strict liability offense under this version of U.S. copyright law, so innocent infringement is no defense to liability.  It’s also harder to avoid paying some kind of monetary award if an individual is found liable.  Yet, innocent infringement does provide a small sliver of relief for some defendants under the 1976 Act.

The first is for an infringer who “was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of copyright”[8].  In this instance, a “court in its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200”[9].  That might sound great, but let’s look a little more closely.  First, a defendant bears the burden to prove that they were not aware that their work was infringing copyright.  Second, even if they meet that burden, the court still has discretion in reducing damages.  This means the court may not reduce damages, even if the defendant proves the infringement was innocent.  Third, damages are only reduced, not eliminated completely.  Fourth, and finally, this is only an option if the plaintiff in the case chooses to be awarded pre-defined statutory damages, as opposed to actual damages and profits[10]. To add insult to this injury, a defendant may still be on the hook for the plaintiff’s court costs and attorney’s fees[11].  These fees can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.  For example, the attorneys who successfully argued that the happy birthday song is not protected by copyright were awarded over four million dollars in fees[12].

The second is for an infringer who “believed and had reasonable grounds for believing that his or her use of the copyrighted work was a fair use under section 107, if the infringer was: (i) an employee or agent of a nonprofit educational institution, library, or archives acting within the scope of his or her employment … or (ii) a public broadcasting entity”[13] or an employee of a public broadcasting entity.  If an infringer falls into one of those specific employment categories and reasonably believed that their use was a fair use, then no damages will be assessed.  Of course, just like in the first example, the infringer could still be liable for paying the plaintiff’s court costs and attorney’s fees.

Today, innocent infringement is no longer a defense in a copyright infringement case, and even an unwitting infringer could be liable for what might be extremely high court costs and attorney fees.  Innocent infringement, as a defense to liability or a method of obtaining complete relief from liability for damages, no longer exists and we have come a long way since 1790.  Do you think these changes are an improvement?  Leave a comment and let us know how you feel about the treatment of “innocent” infringers in United States copyright law!

Please visit the other post in our series – If there’s no (c), is it copyrighted?


By Marley C. Nelson, Rights Management Specialist at the Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries


[1] Copyright Act of 1790, 17 U.S.C. §2 (1790).

[2] “Mens rea” means guilty mind.  In order to be found guilty of many crimes, you must commit an illegal act (e.g. copying someone else’s copyright protected work) while having a certain level of intent to do so (e.g. knowing the work is protected by copyright).

[3] Copyright Act of 1790, 17 U.S.C. §2 (1790).

[4] Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2016.  Accessed via on 08/31/2016.

[5] Copyright Act of 1909, 17 U.S.C. §20 (1909).

[6] Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §1 (1976).

[7] The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-568, 102 Stat. 2853.  Accessible at

[8] Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(2) (1976).

[9] Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(2) (1976).

[10] See, generally, Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §504 (1976).

[11] Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §505 (1976).

[12] See, e.g., Andrew Blake, Attorneys awarded $4.6 million over ‘Happy Birthday’ copyright claim, Washington Times August 19, 2016.  Accessed via

[13] Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(2) (1976).