It's tough to describe my summer with a straight face, but here goes. I was on the cruise ship MTS World Renaissance, a "floating university" where I taught law and political science. The 9-week sea voyage visited several European ports, including stops in Greece, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Norway.
It's not my intention to spend this column expounding on the trip's travel and discovery opportunities (although I could). However, as an instructor (on the voyage) and information professional (my day job), it offered an interesting chance to move beyond the cliche of "global information networks." I had a small glimpse of the world of information haves and have-nots and saw how both U.S. and international copyright laws affect day-to-day life in a variety of contexts.
The ship itself is an information have-not. The World Renaissance is a converted cruise liner with classrooms, a library, and computer labs-but no Internet access or local area network. Coping with this reality began even before the ship sailed as I developed materials for the two courses I was teaching: Civil Liberties and Culture of Law and Justice. Both relied heavily on Web-based resources from the U.S. and foreign governments, and from multinational organizations like the United Nations, NATO, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. In a traditional "landed" campus environment, I likely would have set up a Web page with links to relevant sites, placed other documents on reserve, and not worried too much about copyright issues. As it was, I downloaded and edited many of the documents I needed, which raised a number of copyright concerns.
While viewing Web pages online is generally considered permissible under U.S. and international copyright law, downloading and editing online documents would normally infringe the reproduction and derivative rights that are retained by the copyright owner under Title 17, Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act. In order to avoid liability for infringement I needed to identify a copyright exemption.
The most valuable exemption that applied is found at Title 17, Section 105 of the U.S. Code (http://uscode.house.gov/usc.htm). It provides that copyright protection is not available for any work of the U.S. government. This law effectively places U.S. government documents in the public domain and allowed me to download and edit as necessary a number of Supreme Court cases; federal statutes; and a wealth of reports from the State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other government agencies. State government materials, such as court case decisions and state and local statutes, are also not protected by copyright under an older legal principal requiring that citizens must have free access to the laws that govern them. Further, by giving their consent to be governed in a democratic process, they are in effect the owners and authors of the law.
There are, however, several limits on these rules. Recently, a nonprofit Web-based publishing company attempted to publish state and local statutes that incorporated various commercially developed building codes. The commercial authors had previously copyrighted those codes, and a federal appeals court held that the material did not lose its copyright protection when adopted by the government. Similarly, courts have held that works commissioned and published by the government, but created by non-government employees, may be protected by copyright even when published in government documents. Also, copyrighted material that's republished in government works does not lose its copyright protection. Because of this rule, I declined to use an article from a State Department journal when I found out that it had been previously published in a copyrighted journal.
A related concern applied to documents from multinational organizations and non-U. …