by, 01-07-2009 at 12:03 PM (2001 Views)
In lieu of all the copyright hullabaloo, I thought it useful to post a little from 10 Big Myths About Copyright.
TL;DR1) "If it doesn't have a copyright notice, it's not copyrighted."
This was true in the past, but today almost all major nations follow the Berne copyright convention. For example, in the USA, almost everything created privately and originally after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether it has a notice or not. The default you should assume for other people's works is that they are copyrighted and may not be copied unless you know otherwise. There are some old works that lost protection without notice, but frankly you should not risk it unless you know for sure.
2) "If I don't charge for it, it's not a violation."
False. Whether you charge can affect the damages awarded in court, but that's main difference under the law. It's still a violation if you give it away -- and there can still be serious damages if you hurt the commercial value of the property. There is a USA exception for personal copying of music, which is not a violation, though courts seem to have said that doesn't include widescale anonymous personal copying as Napster. If the work has no commercial value, the violation is mostly technical and is unlikely to result in legal action. Fair use determinations (see below) do sometimes depend on the involvement of money.
3) "If it's posted to Usenet it's in the public domain."
False. Nothing modern and creative is in the public domain anymore unless the owner explicitly puts it in the public domain(*). Explicitly, as in you have a note from the author/owner saying, "I grant this to the public domain." Those exact words or words very much like them.
Note that all this assumes the poster had the right to post the item in the first place. If the poster didn't, then all the copies are pirated, and no implied license or theoretical reduction of the copyright can take place.
4) "My posting was just fair use!"
See EFF notes on fair use and links from it for a detailed answer, but bear the following in mind:
The "fair use" exemption to (U.S.) copyright law was created to allow things such as commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education about copyrighted works without the permission of the author. That's vital so that copyright law doesn't block your freedom to express your own works -- only the ability to appropriate other people's. Intent, and damage to the commercial value of the work are important considerations.
Facts and ideas can't be copyrighted, but their expression and structure can. You can always write the facts in your own words though
5) "If you don't defend your copyright you lose it." -- "Somebody has that name copyrighted!"
False. Copyright is effectively never lost these days, unless explicitly given away. You also can't "copyright a name" or anything short like that, such as almost all titles. You may be thinking of trade marks, which apply to names, and can be weakened or lost if not defended.
6) "If I make up my own stories, but base them on another work, my new work belongs to me."
False. U.S. Copyright law is quite explicit that the making of what are called "derivative works" -- works based or derived from another copyrighted work -- is the exclusive province of the owner of the original work. This is true even though the making of these new works is a highly creative process. If you write a story using settings or characters from somebody else's work, you need that author's permission.
Yes, that means almost all "fan fiction" is arguably a copyright violation. If you want to publish a story about Jim Kirk and Mr. Spock, you need Paramount's permission, plain and simple. Now, as it turns out, many, but not all holders of popular copyrights turn a blind eye to "fan fiction" or even subtly encourage it because it helps them. Make no mistake, however, that it is entirely up to them whether to do that.
There is a major exception -- criticism and
parody. The fair use provision says that if you want to make fun of something like Star Trek, you don't need their permission to include Mr. Spock. This is not a loophole; you can't just take a non-parody and claim it is one on a technicality. The way "fair use" works is you get sued for copyright infringement, and you admit you did copy, but that your copying was a fair use. A subjective judgment on, among other things, your goals, is then made.
However, it's also worth noting that a court has never ruled on this issue, because fan fiction cases always get settled quickly when the defendant is a fan of limited means sued by a powerful publishing company. Some argue that completely non-commercial fan fiction might be declared a fair use if courts get to decide. You can read more
7) "They can't get me, defendants in court have powerful rights!"
Copyright law is mostly civil law. If you violate copyright you would usually get sued, not be charged with a crime. "Innocent until proven guilty" is a principle of criminal law, as is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt." Sorry, but in copyright suits, these don't apply the same way or at all. It's mostly which side and set of evidence the judge or jury accepts or believes more, though the rules vary based on the type of infringement. In civil cases you can even be made to testify against your own interests.
8) "Oh, so copyright violation isn't a crime or anything?"
Actually, in the 90s in the USA commercial copyright violation involving more than 10 copies and value over $2500 was made a felony. So watch out. (At least you get the protections of criminal law.) On the other hand, don't think you're going to get people thrown in jail for posting your E-mail. The courts have much better things to do. This is a fairly new, untested statute. In one case an operator of a pirate BBS that didn't charge was acquited because he didn't charge, but congress amended the law to cover that.
9) "It doesn't hurt anybody -- in fact it's free advertising."
It's up to the owner to decide if they want the free ads or not. If they want them, they will be sure to contact you. Don't rationalize whether it hurts the owner or not, ask them. Usually that's not too hard to do. Time past, ClariNet published the very funny Dave Barry column to a large and appreciative Usenet audience for a fee, but some person didn't ask, and forwarded it to a mailing list, got caught, and the newspaper chain that employs Dave Barry pulled the column from the net, pissing off everybody who enjoyed it. Even if you can't think of how the author or owner gets hurt, think about the fact that piracy on the net hurts everybody who wants a chance to use this wonderful new technology to do more than read other people's flamewars.
* These days, almost all things are copyrighted the moment they are written, and no copyright notice is required.
* Copyright is still violated whether you charged money or not, only damages are affected by that.
* Postings to the net are not granted to the public domain, and don't grant you any permission to do further copying except perhaps the sort of copying the poster might have expected in the ordinary flow of the net.
* Fair use is a complex doctrine meant to allow certain valuable social purposes. Ask yourself why you are republishing what you are posting and why you couldn't have just rewritten it in your own words.
* Copyright is not lost because you don't defend it; that's a concept from trademark law. The ownership of names is also from trademark law, so don't say somebody has a name copyrighted.
* Fan fiction and other work derived from copyrighted works is a copyright violation.
* Copyright law is mostly civil law where the special rights of criminal defendants you hear so much about don't apply. Watch out, however, as new laws are moving copyright violation into the criminal realm.
* Don't rationalize that you are helping the copyright holder; often it's not that hard to ask permission.
* Posting E-mail is technically a violation, but revealing facts from E-mail you got isn't, and for almost all typical E-mail, nobody could wring any damages from you for posting it. The law doesn't do much to protect works with no commercial value.