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No. Copyright protection is available to both published and unpublished works.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.

11 thoughts on “Living (Happily) With Copyright

  1. A lot of the confusion surrounding copyright stems from the fact that the rules are both situation dependent and subject to interpretation on a case-by-case basis. And it’s possible to copy someone else’s stuff without getting caught. As poster Paul LaGasse noted, it is really an honor stystem. So it’s easy to see why so many people think it’s OK to do it.

    I researched this topic for an Editorial Eye article (August 2004, EEI Communications)and have a better appreciation for why the rules are so vaguely defined and why copyright will always be an issue for writers, artists, inventors, and the like.

    But no matter how rules are interpreted, it’s just plain wrong to claim someone else’s work as your own. If you do use the work of another, ask permission and give credit. After all that’s the way you’d want to be treated. If the Internet has made it easier to copy other’s stuff, it’s also made it easier to ask for permission.

  2. Arlee–I have a love/hate relationship with copyright. In my ideal world, I’d publish everything and no one would misuse it. But that’s a lot like thinking I could leave my car unlocked and the keys in it, and no one should steal it. I’m old enough that I get cranky when people are called “stupid” for not barricading themselves and their cars with incredible protection. So I follow copyright laws and try to get others to play along. It’s not always fun or even useful.

  3. I “installed” Copyscape and found a number of sites that had done to me what they had done to you—-the “host” removed the sites, but i find another one every month or so………
    The blogging world i think is divided into interests enough that i find most of my readers and those i read readily share the information if someone else is copying or even paraphrasing the same subject.
    Some people however refuse to be educated and will steal no matter what……

  4. Creative Commons is a wonderful idea. It’s the idea I would have had if they had asked me (see Pete and my exchange, above). I’d like to think people would play nice and not be mean. Sometimes I wonder if everyone just decided to play nice for one day, if the world would change.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion that (I think) gets to the heart of the issue: two cultures with broadly different approaches to creation, ownership, rights, and use. At the point of intersection in cyberspace, there’s been a real collision of values.

    One of the implicit things that copyright, patent, and trademark law had going for it is that, until recently, it was relatively expensive and time-consuming to copy and disseminate other peoples’ work. The sudden ability to copy and disseminate information — words, images, sounds — with very little expenditure of time and money suddenly makes it convenient for lots of people who were previously unfamiliar with either the letter or spirit of the law.

    There has to be a way for the new culture of the Web to find room for both to co-exist. There are some things that are freely available for all to take for free in toto, without attribution or acknowledgment, and there are some things that are not.

    I think that Creative Commons licensing goes a long way toward helping people recognize those distinctions. And because at its heart CC is essentially an “honor system,” it is driven by trust, respect, and dignity, not by coercion and threat — hopefully setting the right tone for everyone.

    My $0.02, hoping that it encourages more thought and discussion…


  6. True; I’m definitely not an artist. Lacking any identifiable talent, I design software user interfaces. When my work appears somewhere else, I feel good; it means I managed to design something that’s useful to more people. It’s also generally anonymous work; millions of people, for example, use a computer mouse every day, but probably few of them know who invented it (Doug Englebart).

    You’re not wrong at all; I’ve just heard different arguments, which is after all the work product of lawyers. Legal departments exist to generate arguments.

    I can’t even claim to know much about art or the business of art. I’d be interested to know where to go to learn more.

    What would you have devised if they had come to ask?

  7. Nice, informative article. This kind of information needs to be published, or linked to, with more frequency. There are still too many people that don’t understand what you can and cannot do with copyrighted works, or even what is copyrightable. It’s especially true with regard to people believing anything they find on the Internet is in the public domain.

    It also bears repeating that the lack of a copyright notice does not necessarily indicate a lack of copyright protection.

  8. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Living (Happily) with Copyright

  9. Pete–You are always free to express your (very strong) opinions. You’re not an artist, so I imagine your opinons on using images, music, words to create enjoyment might be different from an artist who feels ripped off if her work appears somewhere, changed, or unattributed, without her permission. I’m sure the Nokia legal department can prove me wrong in many ways–but they probably aren’t artists, either. (And from my experience, probably don’t write in simple-to-undersand sentences.)

    The original artical was limited to 800 words covering the use of one artists work in another art work in the US. Copyright is a complicated, ever-changing set of rules that the government doesn’t enforce. It encourages individual to sue each other. Not what I would have devised, but they didn’t come to me to ask, either.

  10. Well…I couldn’t disagree more on an ethical basis and I think some of the legal opinions you’ve received are not what I hear from the Nokia copyright legal department. Also US copyright law doesn’t apply to the rest of the world, US legal slime’s opinion to the contrary. Most copyright propaganda is just that: propaganda.

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