Copyright is something you have to deal with as you go about your business on the web. So it is really useful to know a little bit about the Copyright Act. I have prepared a short summary and I also hope to clear up some misconceptions about it.
What Is Copyright?
Copyright is the exclusive right to copy, distribute, perform and display a piece of work. Copyright also gives the exclusive right to prepare derivative works from the original. As the copyright holder, you can also assign somebody else the same rights to copy, distribute, perform, display or prepare derivative works on your behalf.
Simple Facts About Copyright
- Any type of "original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works" that you produce in fixed, tangible form is copyrighted. Copyright occurs immediately after the work is produced and it is not necessary for you to register it to claim copyright. It is also not necessary for you to put a copyright notice.
- If you are being paid to produce the work, the copyright belongs not to you but to the person who pays you.
- Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted but the way that they are expressed can be.
- Basing your work on another piece of copyrighted work is a violation of copyright. In other words, if you were to write a completely original story about Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, you would still be in violation of copyright. What you have done is actually a derivative work of the original copyrighted work.
- Even if you do not profit from the reproduction, you are still in violation. In other words, you cannot reproduce a copyrighted work under any conditions, unless you have the permission of the copyright holder or unless it is under the terms of fair use.
- Anything posted to the public domain is still copyrighted. In other words, works posted to usenet, or comments in a hub, or forum postings, are copyrighted. That also includes anything that is emailed to you.
Under certain conditions, it is permissible to reproduce a copyrighted work without the copyright holder's permission. This is called fair use. Note that fair use is decided by a judge and there are no clear-cut rules specifying what is and what is not fair use.
But the following factors will be considered when deciding fair use:
- The nature of the work, whether it is more artistic or factual.
- Was there a profit objective to reproducing the work?
- Was the market of the copyrighted work hurt by the reproduction?
- How much of the work was reproduced?
In other words, doing the following will probably not get you in trouble:
- Quoting a few sentences from a book that you are reviewing.
- Making a copy of a chapter of a book for personal study.
- Making a complete copy of a audio CD that you own.
When To Be Careful
In most cases, infringing on the copyright of another will not get you into a lot of trouble. For example, if you are to put a copyrighted photo on your website, the worst that can happen is that the copyright holder will send a complaint to your web host and they will shut down your web site. I doubt the copyright holder will bother to sue you unless your site is very profitable.
However, as BusinessTime has noted in her comments below, just because the chances that you will be prosecuted for copyright infringement is low, that does not make it ok to knowingly do it. "It's a law, whether we like it or not, and it's not OK to steal someone's hard work just because we can!"
But even if you are following all the rules, there are times when you want to be more careful, and make doubly sure:
- If your website is making a lot of money.
- If you are making multiple copies, such as web templates.
- If you are selling the work directly.
- If there is a model or models in the work, make sure you have their release on file.
Even if the website says that the holder has released the work into the public domain, or has released it under a lesser license, you might want to check just to be sure. Remember that the person who uploaded the work might not be the copyright holder.
If in doubt, and especially if the stakes are high, do consult a legal professional to be sure, or even better, take the trouble to do the work yourself or contract somebody to do it.
I am not a legal professional nor do I have any legal training. This article constitutes a guide to what copyright is, and what you can and cannot do with regards to a copyrighted work. This article cannot be taken as legal advice.