Living (Happily) With Copyright

Last night I noticed a recent post getting a lot of looks. They all came from the same source, so I went over to see what the link was. It wasn’t a link, someone had taken the entire article and printed it on their site. Yes, there was a link to this site, and yes, I was credited. But whether it’s print, Internet, Blogosphere, or any other outlet, you may not take and reprint articles without the authors permission. I have that rule on the homepage and have a copyright notice often on the site.

We live in a world of “sampling” and “free use,” but material on the Internet is not free just because you can cut and paste. Recently some students took information and pictures from Facebook and YouTube and printed the images in their yearbook. They didn’t think they had done anything wrong.

Most students who take sentences, paragraphs and entire articles and use them in their own work don’t think they are cheating or doing anything wrong. But they are, on both counts.

Not too long ago, I interviewed a copyright attorney about copyrights of authors and writers. The article was published in Somerset Studio magazine. I retain the copyright. Here’s that article again.

Please note: This is not meant as legal advice. Copyright law is constantly changing, and I did not update this article, nor do I have plans to do so. Please consult your own attorney if you have questions.

Living (Happily) with Copyright Regulations

Get on any art forum and use the word “copyright” and out comes a rush of confusion, arguments and myth-information. To make sure I got the facts straight, I talked to Katharine Colgan, JD, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania writer with expertise in writers contracts and copyright law. So let’s set the record straight with some questions and answers:
1. What is copyright anyway?
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code) to those who create “original works of authorship,” including literature, drama, music, jewelry, postcards, greeting cards, cartoons, puzzles, rubber stamps, original dance moves, and other intellectual works. If you can touch it, see it, hear it, save it to a hard drive, print it on paper, or put it on a CD, you can copyright it. And that includes the HTML code you write it with.

2. Does my work have to be published to have copyright protection?
No. Copyright protection is available to both published and unpublished works. This applies to artwork, too. A statue in a public garden is protected under copyright; you can’t take a picture, make a postcard and sell it without permission.

3. My work is under copyright when I create it, so why register it?
Because the only way you can sue and collect for damages is to register your work. Luckily, it is neither difficult nor expensive to register your work.

4. How do I register my work?

You can download forms from the government here:
Benedict Mahoney has a website that is both informative and simple to follow. You can download forms from this page ( and detailed instructions here Note that when you choose a form, TX, VA and PA do not stand for states but are the form for text, graphic (visual) and plays or radio scripts, respectively. As of this writing, the fee is $30, but it can change, so check.

5. I work for a company that sells cards. They asked me to create cards and I did. Who holds the copyright, the company or me?

According to Section 101 of the Copyright Law the company who hired you to create cards (or other original work) owns the copyright. If you are an independent contractor (freelancer), the work you do for others is not “work for hire” unless it falls within a few narrow exceptions for “specially commissioned” works—or you sign a “work-for-hire” contract that makes your client the author and not you.

6. If I buy a pattern, or a rubber stamp, can I use it?
Yes, of course, you can use it to make items for yourself. A website that sells patterns will also have rules about how you can use them. Sometimes those rules prohibit you from giving away items you make from the pattern, and you can certainly not make a copy of the pattern and sell or give it away. You also cannot make items from the pattern to sell for profit unless you have specific permission from the person/company who holds the copyright. (Note that asking the designer for permission may not be asking the copyright holder—see question 5.)

7. Copyright doesn’t apply to the Web, does it?
Yes, it does. What appears on someone else’s website is their material. You may not download it without permission. “Public domain” is not the same as “internet.” If you download something to your website, and your website has a copyright mark on it, you do not own the material you downloaded.

8. If the author is anonymous, the work is in the public domain and I can use it without attribution.

Maybe. If the work was created before 1923 and published in the United States and has not been attributed to someone, then it may be in the public domain. But even if the work is anonymous, if it was published in the United States after 1923 it remains under copyright for 120 years. If you get your own copyright, you and your heirs keep the copyright until you die plus an additional 70 years.

9. If I change it 10 (or 20) percent, it’s new work.
That idea has all the marks of an urban legend, but it’s not true. Any change of an idea that isn’t yours that doesn’t make a completely new and different idea is called “derivative” and is against copyright regulations. Also false: the idea that changing the color, changing the frame on a rubber stamp, or changing the clasp on a piece of jewelry makes it a new piece.

10. I can get around copyright laws because of the ‘fair use’ doctrine.

There is a ‘fair use’ exception in copyright law, but here is what it says you must be doing: parody, news reporting, research and education. What you must not be doing is making money from someone else’s work or ruining its commercial value.


The whole copyright law:
Check out specifics in Circular 1 and a good overview in Circular 40. Both are available as PDFs.

“Three Reasons to Get Copyright,” previously published on this blog.

Specific definitions of words

Plain language of the high points

10 Myths About Copyright Law Explained

(c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. No reproduction, electronically or in any kind of print, without express written permission of the author.