They Want Their Mtv Back

When Sut Jhally turns on MTV, it isn't hip performers singing and dancing to rick music that he notices. Instead, he sees blatant advertisements for albums that use sex to sell their message. Lacy brassieres, long, slender legs, nymphomaniacal women--these are the products being peddled. As a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Jhally wanted to share his perspective with students. But he couldn't very well stand before a class and just put into words what he saw on the tube. "To have an effective discussion," Jhally says, "you've really got to see them."

So, two years ago, he spliced a bunch of MTV clips together. Trouble was, the students just sang along with the videos without paying any attention to the images. Jhally decided to delete the popular tunes and add more somber music. Students still missed the point. Finally, he inserted his own perceptive narration that made his criticism explicit. The result was "Dreamworlds: Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video," a collection of 165 MTV clips, along with an MTV commercial. It ends graphically with a juxtaposition of the rape scene from the movie "The Accused," with snippets form Sam Kinison and Motley Crue videos. When Jhally finally perfected his tape last fall, he decided to share it with other teachers. He distributed 3,000 brochures, which offered "Dreamworlds" for $100 to institutions and $50 to individuals. So far he's sold 150 copies, with the proceeds going to a nonprofit university trust fund that's used to purchase additional equipment for the communications department.

That's not a lot of circulation, but it was enough to arouse the ire of MTV. After seeing a flier about "Dreamworlds," lawyers for the network fired off a letter to Jhally, threatening a lawsuit if all copies of the tape were not destroyed. MTV's legal theory: use of its logos and footage violates federal copyright law. Jhally responded with an explanation and a copy of the tape, but MTV has refused to back off. A spokeswoman says only that the company is weighing its options. The technical issue for the lawyers is about what constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted work. The larger, untested question is to what extent MTV and other overlords of the airwaves--advertisers, journalists, photographers, entertainers--should be able to use copyright laws to stifle criticism of their product, academic or otherwise. Could ABC News order a public-affairs professor not to show excerpts of controversial "Nightline" installments? Could Newsweek enjoin a media critic from reprinting portions of five articles or advertisements in this magazine that he believed were poorly written or in bad taste?

To MTV, the case is a simple matter of somebody pilfering its material. But MTV won't explain its reasons beyond its commercial interests. In Jhally's view, however, the network is seeking to wield its copyright to preclude him from using any music videos for any reason. To Jhally, that smacks of intellectual suppression. In a letter to the company, he attempted to appeal to MTV's social conscience. "I have noted with interest MTV's much publicized recent stress on "anti-censorship,' he wrote, "and would hope that you would want to support free and open expression of important social issues and First Amendment speech rights." He received no response.

If the dispute winds up in court, it will be decided in the lexicon of fair use. That's a long-accepted doctrine in copyright law that allows excerpting for educational purposes.