Intellectual Property

I am a documentary photographer, photo educator and IP lawyer licensed in New York State. Since passing the Bar Exam in 2004, I have advocated (unsuccessfully) to my various Deans that all art and design students should take one course (out of the 40 or so they are required to take throughout their four years) in copyright. After all, our students spend a huge sum of money learning how to create work, shouldn’t we teach them how to protect it, or how to share it more freely, if that is their choice? Shouldn’t they know why there might be an issue of copyright ownership for the Selfie below, taken by the macaque monkey, not the photographer who owns the camera?




Wikipedia claims that since the monkey actually took the picture, the image can’t belong to the photographer since copyright law does not assign ownership to the owner of the camera. It further argues that since the monkey is a non-human animal, the monkey cannot own a copyright so the image is in the public domain. There is some question as to how the monkey took the image. Did he steal the camera as originally reported, or did the photographer deliberately set up a camera with a cable release hoping the monkeys would make selfies, as he claims in a video interview? These facts will be relevant in the final legal analysis.


My proposals to add copyright as a required class were usually thwarted by the vertical nature of the Institution. Who would “own” the course? It never seemed to me that it mattered much who owned it. It mattered that in the 21st Century students learn more about copyright, trademark and patents than can be obtained in one lecture, which is generally the norm.


Even though I haven’t convinced my bosses that copyright should be required, I did create a website The Copyright Corner for faculty and students and I do teach a 15-week graduate elective in copyright. My course includes the history, theory and practice of copyright. We learn what protection the law provides, but we also question if the law as written can function in the 21st images for which they have not sought permission, that is to say, they infringe copyrights every day in what they consider normal behavior. My class is not dogmatic; we look at a spectrum of thinking and theory from Copy Left to Copy Right. Although I teach the class through my division, Parsons The New School for Design, it is open to all disciplines and divisions at The New School. It usually attracts a few photography undergraduates (who may have attended a copyright lecture I’ve given); and graduate students from Parson’s Design and Technology program and The New School’s Media Studies department, but oddly not graduate photography or fine art students. Out of all the classes I teach, I receive more emails from students who write me, after a few years out of school, to tell me that in retrospect it was the most important course they took. The idea that copyright is an essential topic is finally gaining some traction as evidenced by this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting that a course in Intellectual Property is valuable to every discipline, not just photography, art and design. It also accurately chronicles the difficulty in garnering agreement from curriculum committees.


Intellectual Property: Valuable to Every Discipline


For those of you who are interested, here are some IP related links:


Media Rights
Electronic Freedom Foundation
US Copyright Office
The Copyright Corner
Creative Commons
Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age (this is an engaging 24-minute documentary about “appropriation, creative influence, re-use and intellectual property in the remix age).
Stanford University



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