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MLA Stylin'

Like most of you, I’ve been perched on my front porch every day for two weeks waiting for the new (3rd edition) of the mla Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing to arrive. At long last, it came. Naturally, I sat down and read it cover to cover.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I will note, however, that my lifelong dream of having one of my articles cited as an example of the use of italicized titles was not realized.

However, that insufferable slight was almost ameliorated by a new section on Fair Use that, in comparison to the cold informational tone of previous editions, almost rises to the level of protest. I particularly welcome the addition of such detailed explanations, which occur amidst frequent mention of the case law governing the Fair Use provision:

Congress intended the statutory provision…to restate the fair use doctrine that existed before the passage of the act, not to change, narrow, or enlarge it in any way, as the reports of the House and Senate committees make clear. Accordingly, all decisions of the courts before and after the 1976 Copyright Act are relevant to the determination of copyright law. [. . .] Furthermore, the Copyright Act makes no statement amount the relative importance of the [four] factors, and the Supreme Court clarified in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (1994) that no one factor is more important than the others, nor must the use be supported by all four factors to be fair. (51)

And my favorite . . .

Although one occasionally hears that it is acceptable to use some percentage of the work or some specified number of words, neither the statute nor any regulation nor case law sanctions such guidelines on the quantity of material protected by copyright that may be taken without permission, and authors should not rely on them.

Actually, one doesn’t “occasionally hear” that it is acceptable. I have yet to encounter a library or department that doesn’t hand out a sheet describing exactly how many pages (or lines, or words) one can copy from a text before it violates what is widely understood to be the most important of the four factors (“The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work”). “Very few,” is the message communicated by these guidelines, and yet most people I know understand it as an articulation of the Fair Use provision. Few seem to be aware that these guidelines were written by the Association of American Publishers — a trade association primarily concerned with protecting the industry — and have no basis in law.

It’s refreshing to see an articulation of Fair Use (put forth by a major scholarly society) that does not attempt to frighten authors into complying with the industry’s reading of the statute, but instead subtly urges American authors to assert their Fair Use rights as citizens engaged in “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . ., scholarship, or research” (51). Perhaps we could excerpt this fine section (2.2.13) of the mla Style Manual and hand it out in department copy centers as a replacement for the aap’s manifesto?

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