With all this talk of fair use and the intricacies of copyrighting in this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but think of the ongoing plagiarism scandal surrounding film star, Shia LaBeouf. To briefly recap: back in December, Mr. LaBeouf (of Transformers and Even Stevens fame, among other film and television projects) released a short film that was revealed to be largely lifted from a graphic novel authored by a guy named Daniel Clowes. In the months following, LaBeouf has issued a number of public statements apologizing for his various plagiarisms which in turn appear to plagiarize other public apologies. This has all led to the most recent development in the saga, in which the actor has launched a performance art piece entitled #IAMSORRY involving him sitting silently in a room wearing a tuxedo and a paper bag featuring the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” over his head (a look LaBeouf debuted last weekend at a Berlin film premiere).
Now, you’re probably asking “What does Shia LaBeouf copying a bunch of stuff and generally acting like kind of a crazypants have to do with digital history and fair use?” The answer: quite a bit, actually. Although we as historians may not be plagiarizing wholesale from anyone else’s works, nor exhibiting such erratic behavior after doing so, we can still use the LaBeouf scandal to our advantage in better understanding what does and does not constitute “fair use” in the online world.
Defined by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen in “Owning the Past?” as the practice of “limited borrowing from the work of others [that is] acceptable when that borrowing produces something new and useful,” fair use is regarded by authors Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi as a “tool of creative freedom.” In their book, Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, Aufderheide and Jaszi argue that the practice of fair use serves as a shield of sorts, defending the creative process from the clutches of power-hungry copyright holders seeking to become “chiefs of private fiefdoms of culture, and private censors of future culture.” While this description appears a tad extreme, and clearly does not speak to the aims of all copyright holders – several of whom simply seek to protect the rights to what is intellectually theirs – Aufderheide and Jaszi make a good point in characterizing fair use as an important tool in the creative process.
So was Shia LaBeouf simply practicing his right to fair use in this string of copyright scandal? If you’re going by Rosenzweig and Cohen’s 4 Factors of Fair Use, then probably not. Looking at all of LaBeouf’s plagiarism snafus, he collectively violates each of these four factors in one form or another.
Of course, not all cases are as high-profile as the LaBeouf scandal, and some areas are significantly grayer than others. At what point does exercising a right to fair use turn into wholesale breach of copyright? For that matter, to what extent does a copyright protect certain materials? As indicated by Rosenzweig and Cohen, the intricacies of copyright law are constantly changing over time. Can a conclusive decision ever be reached? What would this set boundary look like and how would it be enforced?
More importantly, will Shia LaBeouf ever take that bag off his head?