Copyright violation or Fair Use?

Do websites have the right to share and/or sell previously published material?  The answer is not an ambiguous yes or no.  Under the Fair Use law, copyrighted material may be used only if it is “(a) not used for commercial gain and used exclusively for educational purposes; and (b) used in limited amounts in comparison to the published source.” (http://www.upenn.edu/).  Therefore, under to the law, it is perfectly legal to share previously published or otherwise copyright-protected material, as long as the distribution is limited, it is used to educational purposes—and, it is not used for commercial gain. 

However, if the material is used for commercial gain, then this clearly infringes on the both the law, and, in my opinion, the spirit of the law as well.  Simply copying someone’s work, then selling it for commercial gain (whether or not you give them credit), then is illegal.  However, if the material has been completely repackaged—so that the original product is almost unrecognizable—then, it seems that the material might be fair game to be sold for commercial use.

The website I examined today, the Internet History Sourcebooks Project (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall), provides a wealth of resources for history teachers and students in high school and college.  According to the introduction page, their goal is “to present a diversity of source material in modern European, American, and Latin American history, as well as a significant amount of material pertinent to world cultures and global studies.” (Internet History Sourcebook Project)  The website culls information from various documents available from around the web, including “contemporary narrative accounts, personal memoirs, songs, newspaper reports, as well as cultural, philosophical, religious and scientific documents” (ibid).

The first question, then, is, does this site infringe on copyright law?  After all, it provides scanned books (or portions thereof), video clips, etc.  The answer is, according to the Fair Use act, it does not. It clearly is distributing the material for educational purposes, and the site doesn’t charge for its use.  This does not meant that there have been categorically zero copyright infringements—as the site states, they have made a “good faith effort” to adhere to the law (ibid).  It also includes instructions on what to do if someone feels that copyright has been infringed.  As to whether or not the site could charge for their material, it seems that the answer is clearly no, since it has not repackaged it any way.

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