Copyright infringement is not an easy thing to explain. While it may seem as simple as not using someone else's work, it's not that easy. Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and many other organizations, we have the ability to use others' works -- as long as we use it under Fair Use laws. So what does Fair Use have to do with copyright infringement, and how can you utilize it?
Fair Use laws allow us to use a copyrighted work without having to pay someone royalties. This includes using a copyrighted work for educational or instructional uses, criticism of the work, commentaries on the work, news reporting about the work, teaching on the work (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship uses, and research. This is talked about fully in Section 107 of the Copyright Code (commonly called Fair Use) and is available for you to read at your local library.
Copyright Infringement in day-to-day life
Sometimes, if you’re writing a paper for work or school, or if you are creating a Power Point presentation, you need to use someone’s work that is already in copyright. So how do you use it without committing copyright infringement? All you have to do is ask -- the worst they can say is no, right? But, if they do say no, there are several items in the public domain which may help you to finish your project without having to commit copyright infringement.
What is the public domain, and how does it relate to copyright infringement?
Material that is not copyrighted is considered in the public domain. You cannot commit copyright infringement on works in the public domain. These works include things that the copyright has expired on, or is not copyrightable -- such as government publications, jokes, titles, and ideas. Some creators (writers, musicians, artists, and more) deliberately put their work in the public domain, without ever obtaining copyright, by providing an affiliation with Creative Commons. Creative Commons allows people who create materials to forfeit some, or all, of their copyright rights and place their work either partially or fully in the public domain.
So, how do I ensure I’m not committing copyright infringement?
First of all, if you’re going to use someone else’s material, you may want to check the public domain to see if something is suitable for use, instead of trying to use someone else’s copyright. However, if you can’t find something suitable (and you can’t create something yourself), the next best thing (and your only legal course of action) is to find a piece that is in copyright, and contacting the copyright holder.
When you contact the copyright holder, make sure you tell them what you want to use their piece for -- whether it’s for your blog, podcast, or report -- and ask if you can use it. You may have to pay royalties, or an attribution in your piece, or a combination of both. The creator may also place many limitations on when and how you can use their material. Follow all these instructions they give you, and you’ll be free and clear to use their work as you want.
Once you have permission to use a copyrighted work, you need to make sure you stay within the agreed-upon boundaries. If you veer outside their agreed terms, you may open yourself up for a copyright infringement lawsuit, which can be nasty, costly, and time consuming. If you’re in doubt, before contacting the copyright holder, contact a copyright lawyer to ensure you’re following the law -- and protect yourself!
QUESTION: If you hear a great new band, and then download a song from MySpace, is that legal or not?
ANSWER: The events of copyright infringement are not only limited by Kazaa, Morpheus, or some other file sharing peer to peer (P2P) service. If you download a song -- no matter if you’re on a website or a MySpace page -- and it isn’t coming from the artist themselves, you may want to think about downloading it. Chances are, if it’s not coming from them, you can’t have it -- unless it is under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons gives the exact ways in which you can use the license -- and many times those are completely free and legal to download, so make sure you check if it’s under a CC License.
QUESTION: If I’m writing a paper, or article, and I want to quote another website, can I?
ANSWER: First of all, did you know the minute you write or create something, you hold the copyright to it? ESPECIALLY if you’re writing it online -- it’s very easy to track things on the Internet. So, if you’re writing a blog, all the things you’ve written (no matter good or bad) are recorded, thanks to Archive.org, which lets you review last versions of your web pages.
Sometimes, we can use someone else’s work in our own, and think we’re small and anonymous. That no one will notice by the time you get it down -- you’re just “borrowing” it. Before you begin quoting anyone’s website -- from CNN to your local neighborhood hardware store -- you need to ask the person who holds the copyright if you can. Usually, they’ll let you if you attribute to them. Depending who you talk to, you’ll either have to pay royalties or license rights to republish. If you don’t ask before you quote, you’re beginning the events of copyright infringement and you are opening yourself up for a lawsuit.
For more information on copyright infringement, visit my website on Copyright Law and download my free e-book, "Copyright Basics."