News | Academics

Law professor testifies before Congress on fair use policies

  • Cindy Ma / Senior Staff Photographer
    SPEAKER AT THE HOUSE | June Besek, the executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia Law School, testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee on fair use policy on Jan. 28.

Columbia Law lecturer June Besek doesn’t just teach her subject—she helps define it. 

Besek, the executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at the Law School, testified at a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet hearing on Jan. 28 to lend her expertise to the ongoing debates about copyright law. 

For the last few months, the House of Representatives has been weighing an overhaul of its copyright law in light of the impact of the Internet and new technologies, a topic in which Besek is well-versed.

Besek spoke about fair use—the provision of copyright law that determines how original content can and cannot be used by another party­. Besek said the law considers the intent and degree of usage of the work, the nature of the work itself, and the effect on the actual and potential market of the content. 

But now, according to Besek, digitization has added implications to fair use, citing a November appellate court ruling that Google’s online book library, which made texts widely available online, did fall under the law’s fair use policy.

“The law has changed quite a bit, and I think the area that is causing the fair use doctrine to expand is these mass digitization cases,” Besek said.

Unlike most of the speakers who testified before the House subcommittee, Besek argued that technologies shouldn’t fit neatly into the current fair use policies.

“You want to make sure that as new technologies come in you can do some adaptation,” Besek said. “With mass digitization, it’s really stretching it to say that this should just be considered a fair use.”

Besek and the four other speakers—who included American University professor Peter Jaszi and Kurt Wimmer, the general counsel for the Newspaper Association of America—were chosen because of their past work on fair use policies.

“They knew some people with very different ideas were going to talk, and I would be a good counterbalance,” Besek said.

All of the panelists had to submit lengthy written statements before the hearing that summarized their key points—but on the day of the hearing, each person was given only five minutes to talk.

“You have to consider what are your most important points, what do you really want to get across to the subcommittee when you’re sitting in front of them, so it’s a matter of distilling it,” Besek said. “I found it a really challenging experience and actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be.” 

Jim Neal, vice president for information services and University librarian, has worked closely with Besek over the years, “dealing with fair use and exceptions in the copyright law that allow us to serve our users ... and she [Besek] has a particular focus on the arts and humanities, and that’s an area of great interests to libraries,” Neal said. 

Besek and Neal also collaborated for three years in a federal study group that dealt with section 108 of the copyright law. 

“We were trying to recommend changes in the law that would reflect the digital and network information,” Neal said. The digital age demands new definitions of copyright law, and “we tried to bring to the copyright office recommended changes in the law to reflect that reality,” he said.

Neal believes that having professors like Besek who remain active in their fields is crucial to the University. 

“It’s important to have individuals that are seen as having the expertise and knowledge to advise federal policy,” Neal said.

“Copyright is very much a changing field,” Besek said. “And so it’s something you really have to stay on top of.”

Besek said that she stays on top of the field by keeping connected to other organizations, including the New York City Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and the Copyright Society of the USA.

“It’s really useful because when you are in academia, you don’t necessarily get the same kind of examples that you get in practice,” Besek said. “I find out what is becoming more standard in the field. I maintain a name for myself outside of Columbia.”

maia.bix@columbiaspectator.com  |  @MaiaClay4

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