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New York Times Quotes ’14 Alumna on Copyright Kerfuffle

'14 alumna Christine Weller

August 02, 2017

Christine Weller, ’14, offered insights in a New York Times article about a copyright controversy that pitted the author of a pithy tweet against a teen-aged online entrepreneur.

The dispute arose after R&B performer Frank Ocean raised the profile of t-shirts that an 18-year-old online entrepreneur sells that bear a penetrating message: “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?”

Unbeknownst to the entrepreneur, the message emblazoned on her t-shirts had been coined by a student from North Syracuse, N.Y., who was unhappy to see that a tweet he’d written years before had morphed into a commodity from which the young shirt vendor was profiting.    

“People will often take images they find online and reproduce them because they think they have the right to,” Weller said in the article. “But that’s not the case. It’s generally not permitted without the permission of the copyholder.”

An associate at Griesing Law who specializes in intellectual property law and technology, Weller said that copyright is an opt-out system that gives content creators ownership of their intellectual property unless they specify that others can use it.

While fair-use exceptions allow people to borrow content for commentary, criticism or scholarship that transforms it, Weller said, the courts have not offered clear definitions of fair use.

“There are no black and white answers,” she said, adding that it’s also unclear if content as brief as a tweet falls under copyright protection.  In the absence of clear lines, Weller counseled open discussion between both parties.

The Times reported that negotiations are under way between the tweeter and the t-shirt vendor.