Pow! Zap! It's ... Law Guy?

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), April 24, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Pow! Zap! It's ... Law Guy?


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Faster than a speeding lawsuit, more powerful than a trademark logo, it's ...

Fair Use Man! Mild-mannered law professor by day, crusading cartoonist by night (and more than a few weekends).

Actually, it's the University of Oregon's Keith Aoki, whose most recent project finally gave a comics-crazy kid from Michigan and later underground cartoonist in New York City the chance to do what he's always wanted: draw a comic book.

Not a thriller with tight-costumed superheroes or a graphic novel full of dark malevolence, but a comic nonetheless. Called "Bound by Law?" and written with two colleagues at Duke University, the book uses Aoki's well-crafted pen-and-ink drawings as an engaging way to explain to nonlawyers the basics of copyright and fair use, making it a user-friendly introduction to a contentious area of law.

And it's a project that brought Aoki full circle.

"Comics are my first love," he said recently, sitting among comics and cartoons he's drawn over the years. `I fell in love with Marvel comics when I was 7 or 8 years old. I went to the drugstore and found `Spiderman' and `Fantastic Four,' and I was hooked forever."

He went on to earn two art degrees and remained an admirer of comic artists from Jack Kirby, who drew "Captain America" and "The Fantastic Four," among many other classics, to the counterculture icon R. Crumb, who Aoki considers "one of the greatest artists of the second half of the 20th century." Aoki eventually moved to New York City, where he drew cartoons for the underground paper East Village Eye.

But after years of living the starving artist lifestyle - "I got sick of making about $3,000 a year" - he decided it was time for a real career. He made it into Harvard Law, but wasn't sure what to do there until he found something that resonated with his artistic side.

"I was like a fish out of water until I took a class on copyright law," he said.

Now 50, Aoki has taught copyrights, intellectual property and related areas of law for a dozen years. He's been at the UO School of Law since 1993 and is working on a book about intellectual property and plant genetics, but he never lost his love of comics.

"Bound by Law?" tells the story of Akiko, a modern everywoman artist who just wants to make a low-budget documentary showing a day in the life of New York City. But instead of villains, Akiko faces a bewildering maze of copyright laws that could derail her project by forcing her to pay big bucks for the right to show bits of everyday culture, like a street musician playing the song "Pretty Woman" or people in a bar watching a baseball game on television.

Along the way, Aoki and his colleagues - James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain - also tackle the legal notion of fair use. That's the doctrine that allows artists to reuse bits of other works - fragments of a song, snippets of video - to create something new or to parody what came before.

"We could have written a dry, boring legal article," Aoki said.

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