Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What Professional Writers Know About Copyright Law

Martine Courant Rife, Lansing Community College, and Michigan State University, Rhetoric & Writing Program, has published "Study Report: Knowledge and Influence of Copyright Law for U.S. Professional Writers Working in Educational-Context Digital Environments." Here is the abstract.

In fall 2007, with the assistance of research adviser William Hart-Davidson, PhD, Co-Director Writing in Digital Environments Research Center, an empirical study was conducted exploring copyright law's mediational influence on digital composing using a sequential transformative mixed methods research design. A digital survey (N=334) was administered to a randomly selected population of students and teachers in US technical and professional writing programs. Discourse-based interviews designed to elicit tacit knowledge were also conducted with digital writers regarding how they factored in copyright law and fair use in their composing decisions. Student interviewees ranged from professional writing undergraduate to rhetoric and composition PhD candidate on the job market. The discourse-based interviews were supported as well by examining a wide variety of web texts supplied by research participant interviewees. The study sought to examine three main areas of inquiry: 1) the status of knowledge and understanding of copyright law in the field of technical and professional writing as well as with professional writers; 2) the creative thinking processes, or rhetorical invention, of writers in these programs composing webtexts in light of copyright law; and 3) what happens to mediational means as writers leverage them in digital contexts.

In this report the study's six major findings and seven granular findings are briefly summarized and discussed. Questions, an answer key with explanations, and question-by-question survey results to the knowledge portion of the copyright quiz are provided.

The source material for this report derives from dissertation research and text (Rife, 2008). This report outlines levels of chilled speech measured as part of the survey, as well as specific areas of misunderstanding and understandings about copyright law within the field of technical and professional writing and suggests implications for teaching, learning, and research.

Six Major Findings

The study's six major findings were: 1) Web spaces are sites of cultural collision, or commonplaces, where writers occupy sometimes conflicting positions; 2) The intertextuality of web-space-writing provides support for Foucault's theory that the single author is an ideological production representing the opposite of its historical function, i.e. the "author-function," in the larger culture; 3) Contrary to assertions by a number of scholars, for digital writers speech is not chilled. Copyright law as a system of invention organized by rhetoric instead produces speech; 4) Rhetorical topics congeal as a heuristic mediating the digital composing process of writers. Copyright law is just one topic in this heuristic, and not the most important topic; 5) For this group of writers, ethics trumped the law in importance when considering digital composing choices; 6) Whether copyright law serves as a "rule" or "tool" on the activity theory triangle is influenced by levels of writers' knowledge and understanding of the law.

Seven Granular Findings

The study's seven granular findings concern clear misunderstandings among professional-digital writers regarding:
1) the difference between copyright and plagiarism;
2) the differences between unauthorized use and authorized use;
3) the government exception to copyright;
4) the fact that US copyright law protects "creative" work to a higher extent than it protects "factual' work.
Additionally clear areas of understanding are discussed such as:
5) understanding that US copyright protects derivative works;
Despite claims of other scholars, the survey also found:
6) digital writers were not all that "uncertain" about their knowledge of copyright and fair use and writers have a relatively stable confidence level regarding their own understandings of the law.
7) the technical and professional writing community believes that knowledge of copyright law is important to their work as digital writers.


Implications for teaching, learning and research include suggestions for changing technical and professional writing curriculum and pedagogical approaches, the need for continued disciplinary theory building in the area of composing process theories as well as research design, and the call for additional research with respect to a number of complexities and contradictions that emerged from this study.

Download the paper from SSRN here.

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