Is There a Chilling of Digital Communication? Exploring How Knowledge and Understanding of the Fair Use Doctrine May Influence Web Composing

39 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2006

Date Written: July 22, 2006


Does law, or even the presence of the law, shape composing practices? Do fair use/copyright play a part in the web composing practices/pedagogy of students and teachers in technical communication programs as they construct web sites and design curriculum? Westbrook (2006) goes so far as to state that institutional ideologies combined with copyright law "render students' multimedia compositions illegitimate" (p. 459). This empirical study aims to examine these issues and to provide insights that can guide programmatic/pedagogical decisions regarding the instruction of students as technical/professional writers and new media composers.

The pilot study was intended to test the design for a larger study. The study aims to fill in gaps and resolve confusion about how fair use/copyright shapes digital writing. A major fair use research project (Heins & Beckles, 2005) found that artists and scholars have only a vague sense of what fair use includes and have fear about legal repercussions. This uncertain knowledge circumscribes composing practices: "There is an urgent need for accurate information" (p. 54). Those who teach composition should attend to these issues (Rife, 2007, The fair use doctrine).

In order to test the study design, in Spring 2006 we completed an IRB approved pilot study that examined these issues. The study used survey and discourse-based interview methods to examine technical writing instructors' and students' knowledge and understanding of fair use/copyright as it intersects with composing web sites and teaching web authoring. The study examines how, if at all, technical writers/teachers of technical writing apply their knowledge and understanding of fair use to practice.

Tentative Conclusions:

· Students might have more knowledge in some cases than their teachers.

· The TPW program studied may contain students and teachers that are more knowledgeable than those at other institutions.

· All participants were generally knowledgeable, aware of issues - most people got most questions right most of the time.

· Participants are genuinely interested in these issues and think it should be part of their education.

· With increased knowledge and certainly, comes increased agency in composing choices.

· With lack of certainty comes a lack of agency.

· The tipping point in gaining agency when composing may be knowledge of how fair use/copyright works along with knowledge of the risks of digital writing.

· There is substantial confusion about difference between concepts of plagiarism and the fair use doctrine.

· There might be misunderstanding about the nature of the fair use doctrine.

· There is possible unawareness of the protections of the teach act (Section 110, Title 17).

· Based on the outcomes of several questions, there may be substantial unawareness of government document exception from copyright, di minimus use exception, "heart of the matter" issues, and issues concerned with using for criticism versus just using.

Keywords: Fair use, empirical, composing, web authoring, technical writing, study, heins & beckles

JEL Classification: A20, K11

Suggested Citation

Rife, Martine Courant and Hart-Davidson, William, Is There a Chilling of Digital Communication? Exploring How Knowledge and Understanding of the Fair Use Doctrine May Influence Web Composing (July 22, 2006). Available at SSRN: or

Martine Courant Rife (Contact Author)

Lansing Community College ( email )

211G Arts & Sciences
Lansing, MI 48901
United States
517/4839906 (Phone)


William Hart-Davidson

WIDE Research Center ( email )

Agriculture Hall
East Lansing, MI 48824-1122
United States
517/3539184 (Phone)
517/3539162 (Fax)


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