Listen Up, Creatives: How Copyright Works

A gentleman of my acquaintance (you can tell I’ve been reading the Mysteries of Udolpho all day, can’t you) recently penned a plain-English article about online copyright.

As this is a very confusing topic and a lot of people seem to get outraged every now and then, I am reposting it here to spread the informative news.

Note number one: At the bottom of this post you will find a list of resources for images, sounds, video and textual work that are already in the public domain.

Note number two: Creative Commons licenses provide a flexible range of protections and freedoms for authors, artists, and educators. Learn more about it here.

How Copyright Works

By Mike Manz

Originally posted at the Anthology Club

Few things seem to cause as much confusion, angst, and anxiety in the world of writers as copyright law. What it applies to, for how long, and under what circumstances are often treated as unanswerable questions on par with how the universe came to exist, or why whichever line you choose in the grocery store is always the slowest.

Although copyright law can be exceedingly complex in some very specific situations (with regards to orphan works and corporate authorship in particular), in its most basic applications it is actually quite simple to understand*. 

What It Applies To

Copyright applies to any fixed form of expression, and does so from the moment the form of that expression is fixed. To break that down for those who don’t speak lawyer, copyright applies to any:

  1. Fixed: in the sense of unchanging, or static. This would include written text, photographs, visual art of all varieties including sculpture, the specific arrangement of a piece of music, and the recording of a piece of music (although the arrangement and recording are considered separately for copyright purposes).
  2. Form: in the sense that it is the form of expression that is protected not the ideas themselves. This is why the arrangement of a piece of music and the recording of a piece of music are covered separately. Likewise, if you were to take a story such as Star Wars, change the names of the characters and set it underwater, or in the old West but keep the major plot elements unchanged, you would likely not be breaking any laws (save those of good taste), because it is the form rather than the ideas that are protected by copyright law.
  3. Of expression: in the sense that there needs to be some sort of idea or communicative element being expressed. This is why titles, and brand names are not generally covered by copyright law. “Coca-Cola” is registered as a trademark, but is not copyrighted. The shape of their glass bottles is, however, copyrighted as it is a ‘form’ of expression.

For How Long

Free, Open Source Software Store Logo/IconThere are a small handful of situations that complicate copyright duration somewhat. The aforementioned corporate authorship is one example. The fact that laws have changed over the years, generally to extend copyright duration, also means that various works created at various times may be subject to different copyright duration terms.

Generally speaking, anything created after 1989 is copyrighted for the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years, or 95 years from first publication in the case of corporate authorship.

Many people (rightly) consider this length of copyright duration to be completely insane, and contrary to the spirit and intent of copyright laws, but that’s an issue for a different article. Suffice it to say that, at this point in time, anything written after about 1923 is almost certainly still under copyright, and any audio or video recording ever made is likewise probably copyrighted. While some very old photographs may now be in the public domain (no longer copyrighted), most photographs that currently exist still be subject to copyright law.

Under What Circumstances

With regards to works that you have written, they are protected by copyright law the moment you write them down. There is no requirement to publish or to register the work for copyright law to take effect. That being said, without either publication or registration, proving that you are the owner of the copyright of a particular work can be difficult.

By the same token, in order to use someone else’s work you need to obtain their express permission, usually in writing, to do so. For most of us this comes up most frequently with regards to using photographs and images on blogs. It is not enough to assume that a photo or image is in the public domain, or that the owner of the photograph wouldn’t mind you using it. Unless you’ve asked for and received permission to use that photo, you may not.

The owner of the copyright particular work may choose to give blanket permission to everyone to copy or use that work, or to do so under certain, specific circumstances such as only for non-commercial purposes. These works, and those for which the term of the copyright has lapsed, are referred to as being in the public domain. Before using public domain works for yourself, however, remember that the burden is on you to ensure that the work truly is in the public domain.

So there you have it. Copyright in a nutshell.

As it applies to most of us, the TL; DR version goes thusly:

1.       Your work is protected by copyright law the moment you create it.

2.       Don’t use anyone else’s work without explicit permission. Ever.

*This all applies to US copyright law only. Most countries have similar laws, with slightly different details or durations.

Public Domain Resources

So where can you get things that you feel okay about using and know are actually okay to use?

You have a few options (this list is heavily flavoured by my own interests):

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