[vcf-midatlantic] Culpability and Provenance

Bill Degnan billdegnan at gmail.com
Fri Jan 15 02:54:23 UTC 2021

On Thu, Jan 14, 2021 at 6:10 PM Herb Johnson via vcf-midatlantic <
vcf-midatlantic at lists.vcfed.org> wrote:

> Well, while I have a lot I could post on these matters, I won't. I'm not
> a lawyer and these are legal matters. The rest is discussion not advice.
> Certain content one might obtain from others accidentally on an
> abandoned computer, is outright illegal to own and distribute. Delete it
> - period. Other content is proprietary and still in distribution, thus
> an actionable issue by the active producers of that content.

I respectfully contest your statement

First of all, I believe (my belief) that one should try to leave a vintage
computer as-is if possible, to preserve it's providence.  Unless the owner
specifically says to delete everything I don't make a point to do so.

Content authored by a person is owned by that person, i.e.  "copyright ".
True, copyright is retained even after sale or abandonment of the vessel
that stored that content (notebook, computer, tape recorder, etc.), but
it's not a blanket thing. One who obtains a computer legally will not be
guilty of a copyright violation solely by failing to delete the content,
nor is it a copyright violation for using the content privately.  It's not
illegal to retain the content that came with an abandoned computer per se,
and there is no law that requires the deletion of such materials, even if
ethically it may be the right thing to do.  Private letters, resumes,
letters to the editor, transcripts, poems, computer programs, thesis...they
all have different copyright standards so it depends what materials
we're talking about.  It also depends on the type of legal entity who
formally owned computer (company computer, individual's home computer,
public computer from a library, etc.).

For example, let's say a person wrote their doctoral thesis and stored it
on the hard drive pf an old computer, and years later that the
person donated the computer as-is to Goodwill.  If I was to extract that
file somehow and publish it, no violation of copyright law would occur as
long as the thesis had been published exactly as it appeared on the
computer and was therefore already public.  Unless it was a
privately-published journal, and so on.  If an earlier, unfinished revision
of the final thesis was also found on the computer, that's a
different story and it's easier to prove copyright violation perhaps.  In
short, once the information has been made publicly available, and a few
other caveats, it's "less protected", so the rule generally-speaking is
that it has to be otherwise unavailable content as well as originally
authored.   Further, if one were to anonymize the content before publishing
that would likely be ok, if the names and personal info was sanitized from
the published version.


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