Copyright: Complicated

Photo: "Left Shark Steals the Show" by Huntley Paton CC-BY-SA 2.0

Photo: “Left Shark Steals the Show” by Huntley Paton CC-BY-SA 2.0

One of the reasons that copyright can be a challenging subject is that there often is no correct answer to many copyright questions. Especially with technology driving fast changes in literary and artistic works, there are many cases now where law or practice has not caught up to what is happening.

One of my favourite examples of this involves Katy Perry’s left shark.

Katy Perry is an American singer and performer, and she performed a show at the American Super Bowl on 7 February this year. She had a dancer on either side of her, both dressed as sharks. The shark on the right appeared to have learned all of the choreography, but the shark on the left did not.

Here’s a brief clip about what happened.

“Katy Perry’s left shark” became an international phenomenon! Everyone was talking about the left shark, and everyone wanted to profit from it, too. Shortly after the Super Bowl, a man in Florida started 3D printing figurines of the left shark. Katy Perry’s lawyers promptly sent him a letter telling him to cease and desist because Katy Perry owns the copyright in the left shark.

Could she do that? Did she own copyright in the first place? Could 3D printing infringe the copyright on a costume? Actually, those questions are hard to answer. Copyright in costumes is complicated, and the rules around 3D printing are still being decided. We can take some guesses as to how that case would turn out, but the actual laws are not yet written. For many users of 3D printers, that is frustrating!

This happens often in libraries, too. As technology changes, it can be hard to determine whether a certain use of a material is acceptable or whether it is infringing.

The frequent use of smartphones with cameras has complicated the issue of reproduction of works, and the frequent use of social media, blogs, and video-hosting sites has complicated the communication of those reproductions. As a compliance officer in a university library, I am often asked copyright questions about technologies that I did not know existed!

Here are some questions to think about and to talk to your partner about:

  • Do you ever get asked questions where the right answer either does not exist or is difficult to know?
  • Are they related to copyright, or to something else?
  • How do you answer them?

Alison Makins, ILN’s Legal and Risk Consultant

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , .


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