SCMS 2006

view of vancouver from conference hotel

I’ve been at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) 2006 conference in Vancouver for the last week. The conference was quite large: about 600 papers altogether with 15+ parallel strands so it wasn’t possible to get to everything and there were lots of hard choices to be made. However, if the number of conference attendees is anything to go by, media and film studies are booming in North America.

I gave a paper in the “Media Studies and Recent Developments in Critical Theory” organised by Richard Cante. From what I can tell there is considerable interest in finding different theoretical approaches to media and film, which is encouraging. I saw papers on everything from Levinas to Agamben.

Probably one of the most intesting sessions I attended was the Intellectual Property Workshop. It seems as if SCMS is exploring the creation of a policy statement on intellectual property defending “fair use“. Academics in the field are waking up to the worry that draconian extensions to intellectual property law and the implementation of DRM (Digital Rights Management) in media technology are eroding both the de jure and de facto rights of copyright fair use. These developments obviously have particularly bad implications for the study of media and film, making it difficult to include stills and clips in academic work and teaching materials. In the U.S. the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) is of particular concern since it effectively criminalizes all sorts of behaviour that would normally fall under fair use. In particular it makes it illegal to circumvent a “copyright protection device”. This leads to some bizarre outcomes for people studying TV and film. For example it turns out that if you extract still images from a DVD — even though this is trivial to do using readily available software — you are illegally circumventing the DVD’s primitive copyright-protection measures. On the other hand, if you take a picture of your TV screen while it is playing the DVD that is fine and falls under existing fair-use provisions in copyright law.

There were two broad schools of thought in evidence at the workshop. The first is a sort of pragmatic approach that views copyright law as a necessity but seeks to protect “fair use” and lobby for legal changes to do so. The second is a more critical approach which sees copyright law (and intellectual property in general) as serving largely corporate and industrial interests and as having very little to do with protecting creativity. I thought that Mark Poster gave a particularly eloquent exposition of this second position.

Another interesting point that came up was that if you believe your use of a copyright work falls under “fair use” then you are better off from a legal point of view not contacting the copyright holder.

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