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Friday, October 22, 2021

UC Davis School of Law professor Keith Aoki illustrates comic book about copyright law

You may hear the term ‘artistic freedom’ being tossed around casually and think nothing of it.

But UC Davis School of Law professor Keith Aoki and Duke University School of Law professors James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins want you to think again. Aoki illustrated and Boyle and Jenkins wrote a comic book entitled Bound by Law (Tales from a Public Domain) about a filmmaker trying to make a documentary about New York.

The heroine runs into obstacles dealing with copyright laws attached to billboards, songs, images, etc. captured in her film. The book asks if she should compromise the content of her documentary by omitting these scenes or risk being sued.

Images, sounds, music, text and ideas you perceive everyday are a part of a system that can be protected by law, which often raises questions of who owns the material. In Bound by Law, Jenkins, Boyle and Aoki challenge these ideas and limitations by intentionally featuring images or thumbnails derived from copyrighted works.

On the other side, the public domain is a realm of materials, which is not protected exclusively by intellectual property rights. Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke School of Law is an organization dedicated to promote balance in this system.

“We have prepared a wide variety of materials to help people understand the important role of the public domain in creativity, culture, innovation and technology,” said Balfour Smith, program coordinator at CSPD. “The book [Bound by Law], a joint effort of Duke and UC Davis law professors, was created to teach a difficult subject – fair use and copyright – in a fun, easy-to-understand manner.”

Originally, Boyle organized a conference in which they met Davis Guggenheim, renowned director for An Inconvenient Truth, and other filmmakers and discussed copyright clearances for their works. As with director Morgan Spurlock, who ran into copyright issues with McDonalds while filming his documentary Super Size Me, other filmmakers were trying to sort out copyright conflicts limiting their artistic license to create.

“It became far more than making a comic book about the conference,” said Aoki. “It turned into coming up with a piece of writing and drawing that could be read by people who weren’t necessarily lawyers who needed to understand copyright. Copyright stature is about 136 pages and some of it is excruciatingly detailed. We wanted someone like a filmmaker who could read it and get the big ideas”.

Aoki wanted to utilize a medium that was visually accessible and appealing for those who may not be a lawyer. Before becoming a law student and professor, Aoki was an art student with a masters and bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. Utilizing his skill and passion for comic illustrations, Aoki collaborated with Jenkins and Boyle to create Bound by Law.

“They’re two different ways of trying to understand the world,” Aoki said. “Law tends to be more analytical in terms of an intellectual sense. Art and drawing are types of analysis but with different kinds of rules which are applied. One area where art and law do come together is in the intellectual property, in particular copyright law and the law for protection in creative endeavors.”

Aoki is not simply referring to the realm of filmmaking and cinematography. This also includes the realm of art, music and discoveries in general.

“These copyright laws limit the circulation and ways in which people create,” Aoki said. “In particular with digital sampling – such as having GarageBand on every Mac, it’s incredibly easy to create collages which can be a problem.”

Random Abiladeze, a Davis hip-hop and spoken-word artist, said borrowing material from other artists is only a problem when money is involved, and he doesn’t feel inhibited by today’s copyright laws.

“Hip-Hop is based on sampling, so that’s never going to leave the essence of the genre. There is something to be said of creating “original” music (nothing is new under the sun), but sampling isn’t going anywhere,” Random Abilideze said.

With the help of Bound by Law and work-in-progress entitled Theft! A History of Music, Jenkins, Boyle and Aoki aim to help clear those fuzzy boundaries of fair use and copyright laws that can often interfere with creative expression.

“I believe that misunderstanding copyright law and the fair use doctrine poses a great danger to our culture and creativity”, said Smith. “Too often vague ideas of rights are invoked or litigation is threatened to stifle people’s rightful use of materials.  Through its comic books and other programs, I know that the Center is trying to help people understand their rights and responsibilities and still pursue innovative uses of our collective culture.”

Aoki, Boyle and Jenkins’ work has been praised for its inventive approach to its subject matter. Award-winning author Cory Doctorow says Bound by Law is as entertaining as it is informative.

“Bound by Law riffs expertly on classic comic styles, from the Crypt Keeper to Mad Magazine, superheros to Understanding Comics, and lays out a sparkling, witty, moving and informative story about how the eroded public domain has made documentary filmmaking into a minefield,” Doctorow wrote in his review.

Bound by Law can be purchased or downloaded digitally for free at law.duke.edu/cspd/comics. For more information regarding Center for the Study of the Public Domain, go to law.duke.edu/cspd.

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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