• It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's . . . Law Dude?
  • May 19, 2006
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • University of Oregon law professor Keith Aoki has written a comic book.

    It's not a page turner filled with superheroes or a dark graphic novel, though. Called Bound by Law? and written with two colleagues at Duke University, the book is a user-friendly introduction to copyright law, using Aoki's drawings to explain to nonlawyers the basics of the law.

    Aoki, who says that comics are his first love, earned two art degrees and then moved to New York City, where he drew cartoons for the underground paper East Village Eye. But life as a starving artist grew old, and Aoki decided to switch careers. Now 50, Aoki has taught copyright, intellectual property, and related areas of law since 1993 and is at work on a book about intellectual property and plant genetics.

    Bound by Law? tells the story of Akiko, an artist who wants to make a low-budget documentary showing a day in the life of New York City. But instead of villains, Akiko faces a bewildering maze of copyright laws that could spoil her project by forcing her to pay big bucks for the right to show slices of everyday culture, like a street musician playing the song "Pretty Woman" or people in a bar watching a baseball game on television.

    Aoki and his colleagues, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, also address the doctrine of fair use that allows artists to reuse bits of other works, such as fragments of a song or snippets of video, to create something new or to parody what came before.

    "We could have written a dry, boring legal article," Aoki told a local newspaper. "But we wanted to try to do something in a form that would reach other types of people."

    Other types of people include documentary filmmakers who find the aggressive assertion of copyrights has made the process of "clearing rights" an expensive obstacle, as the comic book's protagonist, Akiko, finds. The comic book deliberately falls short of offering legal advice, but Aoki said the message on fair use is simple: "Use it or lose it."

    It took the trio about a year and a half to write Bound by Law?, an effort that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The idea came up at a legal conference on the effects of intellectual property rights on culture, and it seemed like a perfect fit for Aoki, who is perhaps one of the few people to use his own cartoons to illustrate articles in a Harvard law journal.

    "It was very much like shooting a movie on the cheap," he said of the project. "All we had was time, ink and paper."