When copyright is on someone’s mind, it’s usually because there is a question somewhere in that mind. So, it is helpful to articulate the question…
Do I need to protect my work?
Am I violating some law if I use this material?
What the heck is copyright?
For sure the issues involved in these questions overlap. To help illustrate, let’s go with the third question; then, we’ll swing back to the other two.
Imagine writing a poem, posting it up on the web, then seeing it shared… not so bad, unless you want to sell or control how that poem is distributed. That involves copyright law.
Copyright laws protect the work of writers and poets, and that of musicians, painters, and photographers, among others… creatives. In the U.S., copyright law provides exclusive rights such that only the owner – usually the creative of the work – can do things like reproducing or distributing it, or transferring rights.
Who is an Owner?
Well, an owner can be the person who wrote the work, say that poem. Or it can be the company that hired a person to do a given work, say writing a mind-blowing article about copyright. Ownership, by the way, can be sold, but you dear reader did not ask that question at the beginning, so tough luck, ownership is for another time.
Seriously, though. The basic idea behind copyright law is to support and promote creatives, while also leaving some room so that society can access and benefit from these works. In the U.S., the law has the words, ‘to stimulate activity and progress…’ And, the requirements are only that the work be original and fixed on a medium. For writing, a medium simply means that it be written on paper or typed into a computer file.
What’s Not Protected?
Well, ideas are not, because for one they are not fixed on a medium. Discoveries also are not, because arguably they are not ‘original.’ Also not protected are works already in the public domain.
Another important point is that in the U.S. copyright is automatic. In other words, the work is protected by virtue of being original and on some medium, and the (c) will serve as notice of such. This protection lasts for the duration of the creative’s life plus 70 years (slightly different if it was work-for-hire). After that, the work enters the public domain.
Actual registration becomes helpful if the creative needs to enforce their rights by filing a lawsuit against another person. In other countries, however, registration is necessary to be protected; that is, the copyright is not automatic.
Other big issues often involve originality, licenses and contracts, and exceptions to the rule.
What are the Exceptions?
In the U.S., a huge exception is called ‘fair use‘, such as when a short excerpt from a book is used for news purposes to inform the public. This is one reason news outlets can disseminate so much protected material. This use, however, does not make that work suddenly unprotected and public.
In addition, the substance and the quantity of what is shared matter. Usually, if it’s a simple quote, a citation would likely suffice; but, if half the book is used, by let’s a new author writing about a previously published memoir, then copyright is involved because this second author would likely be benefiting from the preceding work.
In other words, plagiarism and copyright are different concepts; one involves credit; the other involves exclusive rights, such as the right to sell and distribute.
Now think about the other two questions. How and whether to protect your work depends on where you are and what you want to do with your work. In the U.S., it’s automatically protected, but registering it might help in the future. What you do with the work is really up to you. You have the exclusive right to sell and distribute, among other rights, with the caveat of needing to register depending on where you are.
The other question, about violating some right or law, most likely depends on how you’re using the work. Sharing a short poem between friends is usually okay. We really don’t want to go crazy with this thing. But, selling that poem, or… copying and distributing a book you think will save humanity, then you might just get into trouble before actually saving humanity.
So, as a summary, articulating the question in mind is usually helpful, so is thoughtfulness. Ultimately, and often enough, there is common sense behind our laws. But remember, with all this said, this article is still only an overview of some copyright issues. It does not provide legal advice, in large part because the details behind your question matter a whole lot.
About the Author
Issa Al-Aweel advocates through lawyering and writing. All the while, searching the world for its forgotten workings, knowing it’s just an eye’s blink away. His adventures have trespassed on engineering, computer work, medical research, visiting ruins, discovering nature… under the guise of attempts to focus.