Remember the Reading Rainbow theme song? "I can go anywhere… friends to know, ways to grow…" Right now we can't actually go anywhere, and all our friends are in Zoom windows or text bubbles. We could really use some Reading Rainbow right now—if copyright law would get out of the way, first.
LeVar Burton, the iconic host of the 80's PBS show for 23 seasons, is trying to figure out how to start a live-streaming storytime online, for children (and adults) stuck inside during the coronavirus isolation and quarantine. To do that, however, he needs to find stories that he won’t get sued for reading.
On Wednesday, Burton tweeted that he's considering doing a live-streamed reading of his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, where he narrates short stories. "I figured that during this difficult time I could contribute by reading aloud to folks who could use some diversion for themselves and their families," he wrote.
But he said he's running into some difficulty finding works he's even allowed to read. Copyright law is vague about whether reading works live, online, is allowed or not.
In 2009, a new Kindle text-to-speech feature for reading e-books aloud caused some controversy, as Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken told the Wall Street Journal, "They don't have the right to read a book out loud," on the basis of an audio version being a derivative work. At the time, the Electronic Freedom Foundation said Aiken was flat-out wrong: that under the Copyright Act, a derivative work is "a work based upon one or more preexisting works . . . which, as a whole, represent[s] an original work of authorship," and as a format devoid of creativity, a TTS algorithm broke no rules.
A rendition of a book read by Burton's iconic voice could be considered adding creativity. And if it's recorded for distribution on his podcast and not just read into the ephemera on Facebook Live or a live YouTube stream, for example, it's then part of a fixed format—which makes it a bit more legally troublesome.
The legalities of storytime are something librarians have had to wrestle with for a long time. Last year, American Library Association’s director of public policy and advocacy Carrie Russell wrote that "storytime online or in person is a 'public performance,' an exclusive right of the copyright holder." A librarian reading books online could be considered fair use, since they're providing a non-profit, educational and socially beneficial service.
Burton reading aloud could be considered self-promotional, and therefore for-profit, since a big part of his public persona is being the Reading Rainbow guy.
To skip all of these complications, Burton could choose from the huge selection of public-domain books, and especially classic children's books, that are freely available and don't come with any copyright headaches.
Of course, this only matters if the copyright holders actually decide to enforce their copyright. During these troubled times, lots of authors have said they would be honored to have him read their books. In response to his tweet, authors are offering to let him read their stories—Neil Gaiman is one of them, and has given other people looking to stage storytimes the same permissions.
Good luck to any author or publisher trying to sue LeVar Burton for reading to kids during a time of crisis, and not look like an evil bastard in the process.