Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a professor of Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE) at Tulane University’s Taylor Center, was researching British literature when it became clear that she would have to learn something about copyrights. It was 1994, and Gard was trying to start her dissertation on the author Vera Brittain, who is best known for her work set during World War I. She didn’t know much about copyrights; she wanted to be a history professor. But she needed Brittain’s writing to do her work, and it wasn’t clear whether she could use it legally.
“I asked my dissertation chair, ‘How do I know if I can use the material or if I can’t?’ and he said, ‘Just write on something else if there’s any chance the literary executor might be difficult,’” says Gard, now a professor at Tulane University Law School. “And I was really feisty, and I didn’t like that answer.”
But finding her own answer proved difficult. Whether a given work is under copyright in the United States is a complicated question. And because Brittain was British and her work is archived in Canada, Gard also had to consider those countries’ laws. To determine the status of the works would likely take a lawyer a few days of research—making legal help too expensive for a graduate student.
Along the way, she and her husband, attorney and professor Ron Gard, who is also a SISE professor at the Taylor Center, surprised themselves by becoming passionate about the law and entrepreneurship. In 2011 they founded a company, Limited Times, to commercialize the Durationator. They’re now enthusiastic boosters of the burgeoning New Orleans startup scene. And in 2013, they founded the Tulane Law/ Culture/ Innovation initiative, which is intended to help Tulane affiliates launch their own businesses.
Gard was hired at Tulane in 2007. She came with a research agenda: Make a tool that would simplify researching copyright duration. She soon met a student with programming experience who needed a summer job. He assured her that the project would take about three months.
Luckily, all of this happened during a phase of entrepreneurial growth in New Orleans. The city has experienced a sort of business renaissance in the past decade, driven in part by the need to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
“While there was entrepreneurialism here before that,” Ron Gard says, “the need to rebuild the city was so great that that was a large effort that really took off and expanded in those years following Katrina, and has really continued to do so.”
Right after her arrival, Gard was able to secure a $60,000 grant from Tulane aimed at fostering innovation after Katrina. And when Tulane officials suggested Gard try building the business herself, they were able to introduce her and her student researchers to the Idea Village, a nonprofit incubator for new businesses. Founded in 2000, it has the lofty goal of making New Orleans the destination city in the South for entrepreneurship.
“I think it’s a story of opening up directions and vistas for us that we wouldn’t have foreseen,” Ron Gard says. “Neither of us set out to be operating in an entrepreneurial sort of business world, but our interests led us there—and it’s created exciting, dynamic things for us.”
“The real goal is for you to put [in] what you know and it looks like TurboTax for copyright,” Gard says. “Just simple and easy and fun and you don’t need to know very much.”
“Our ultimate objective is to extend that to make [the Durationator] available to anybody anywhere,” she says. “That’s what’s driven us from the very beginning, was just: ‘There should be a tool that allows you to do that simply.’ “
“And so we made it,” Gard says.
You can read the article in its entirety, which originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of the ABA Journal here: “Tale of the Tool: Two reluctant entrepreneurs turn the challenge of copyright duration into a business.”