Copyright Myths and Creative Common Sense

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A handful of myths have spawned practices, particularly among bloggers and website owners, that turn copyright law on its head …

… says The Law Library Resource Xchange (LLRX).

These myths are rooted in the assumption that everything is up for use online unless proven otherwise, LLRX says, fostering a presumption of entitlement where many people treat the internet (and non-electronic sources as well) as a buffet spread of photos, articles, sounds and multi-media files free for the plucking and posting.

LLRX highlights eight specific myths:

  1. Myth: It’s okay to use anything that doesn’t have a copyright notice.
  2. Myth: It’s okay to use anything that’s online, because if it’s online, it’s in the public domain and up for grabs.
  3. Myth: It’s okay to use anything as long as I’m not making any money off it.
  4. Myth: It’s okay to use anything as long as I give credit.
  5. Myth: It’s okay to use anything as long as I include the creator’s copyright notice.
  6. Myth: It’s okay to use anything as long as I take it down when the copyright holder objects.
  7. Myth: It’s okay to use something if I can’t find the copyright holder.
  8. Myth: It’s okay to use something if I asked for permission and didn’t get a response.

LLRX’s feature goes into substantial detail in discussing each of these myths. While the focus is on copyright under applicable US law, I am sure that much if not all the myth-debunking would apply in many other countries (caveat emptor, though, with that comment as I’m not a lawyer).

But you don’t need to be a lawyer to know what’s right and what’s not. Just look at the list and ask yourself: Do I disagree with any of these points?

Yet here’s where it becomes interesting. Whether you disagree or not, the reality is that blogs, websites and other electronic media make it so easy and simple to use anything you find, anywhere – a couple of mouse clicks and you have it for whatever use you want.

If you look at my blog, you will find material that, legally speaking, must breach some country’s copyright law. Every time I quote something from an online newspaper or journal, for instance, I guess I’m in breach of copyright.

I often quote verbatim from articles in the Financial Times (UK law) and the Wall Street Journal (US law). Both publications have clear and prominent statements on their websites regarding copyright ownership of content and its use by others (the FT’s terms of use statements include this phrase: “you may not copy, reproduce, publish, broadcast, transmit, modify, adapt, create derivative works of, store, archive, publicly display or in any way commercially exploit any of the FT content”).

It’s pretty clear from a legal point of view. So should I now expect to hear from any publication’s lawyers? No, I don’t think so.

I believe common sense applies in such situations relating to how anyone would use someone else’s material. In the case of the FT, the words “commercially exploit” are highly relevant here (as would be “fair use,” I suspect). If I simply copied the entire content of FT or WSJ articles and reproduced them here in my blog, I would expect to hear from someone at those publications sooner or later, especially if I passed off that content as my own work or if any person reasonably assumed it was my own work.

But I don’t do that.

Copyright laws are all a rather grey area now, it seems to me, and which look increasingly outdated and possibly irrelevant in view of the ease and speed with which anyone is able to use any content, as I mentioned, whether that’s right or not.

To my mind, the balanced approach to copyright and recognizing the intellectual property rights of others as advocated by Creative Commons is how ‘normal’ copyright law should develop:

“As we help people make their work available with public domain dedications and generous licenses, we will also build an “intellectual property conservancy.” Like a land trust or nature preserve, the conservancy will serve to protect works of special public value from exclusionary private ownership and from obsolescence due to neglect or technological change. We will encourage people to donate their works to Creative Commons to be held in public trust; in some cases, we may purchase important works to help guarantee both their integrity and widespread availability. Our ultimate goal is to develop a rich repository of high-quality works in a variety of media, and to promote an ethos of sharing, public education, and creative interactivity.”

I have a Creative Commons license for material on my blog – take a look at it and see how simple and clear it is.

Would a Creative Commons approach mean an end to the simple copy-and-paste method of using others’ material?

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. But at least you can apply common sense and do what you know is right, as suggested by LLRX:

  1. Use someone else’s work only if:
    a. You have permission;
    b. The work is in the public domain; or
    c. What you do with the work amounts to “fair use.”
  2. If you do not know whether a work is subject to copyright, investigate before you use it.
  3. If a work is subject to a copyright, don’t use, quote or lift from it without getting permission first, unless you are confident you meet a fair use exception. For a blogger or site owner, that means ask before posting someone else’s articles or photos.
  4. If you don’t know whether it’s copyrighted or do not know for certain that it is in the public domain, ditto.
  5. If you have any doubts, consult a copyright or intellectual property attorney before using someone else’s work (advice costs less than defending an infringement claim does).

(Hat tip to Shel Holtz for the link to LLRX’s article.)

Neville Hobson is the author of the popular NevilleHobson.com blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly the VP of New Marketing at Crayon. Visit Neville Hobson’s blog: NevilleHobson.com.

Copyright Myths and Creative Common Sense
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