Copyright, Fair Use, and The Far Side

25 February 2009
12:58 PM

This semester I’m taking a course called Information Law and Policy where we review court cases and laws related to, well, information. Our professor assured us that we would be completely unqualified to sit for the bar in May, but that we would understand some of the relevant issues about copyright, liability, fair use, and so forth. In other words, we should have some idea of when to consult a lawyer.

A few weeks ago we discussed fair use, a provision of copyright law that allows people to reproduce copyrighted works under certain conditions. There isn’t an clearly itemized checklist of when fair use applies; it depends on things like “the nature of the copyrighted work” and the use’s effect on the market for the original work. Our discussion made me think about a blog post I made almost two years ago.

In June 2007 I wrote “Hemispherist Humor,” where I reproduced the June 21 page from my Far Side day calendar. I was showing that the calendar said “First Day of Summer” while I was experiencing the first day of winter.

Four months later, I received an email from FarWorks, a company claiming responsibility for licensing Far Side cartoons. The woman who wrote to me asked that I read an attached letter from Gary Larson, and respect his wished by removing the cartoon from my site. The letter from Gary Larson, written to a general audience, expressed that he was flattered people wanted to post his cartoons online, but also that he was conflicted by the financial impact and “the intangible impact, the emotional cost to me, personally, of seeing my work collected, digitized, and offered up in cyberspace beyond my control.”

I barely even read the email before I edited the post and removed the reproduced cartoon—the last thing I needed was some kind of copyright infringement lawsuit.

Now after learning some of the criteria for fair use, I don’t know if I had to remove the cartoon. If I had to do it again, I’d probably still take it down. Legality aside, I didn’t need it to illustrate my point and Larson made a civil request not to reuse it. What I’ve learned, however, is that he doesn’t have the right to restrict reuse completely. Once you publish something you give up some control over how people will actually use it. Practically you can’t monitor all the little things people might do with your work, and legally people are entitled to reuse it under certain fair use conditions.

Would my case have fallen under fair use? Perhaps, but I’m not a lawyer and it wasn’t worth the risk. There is an irony, though: I didn’t even think that day’s cartoon was particularly funny.