October 24, 2005 12:00
An attempt to answer common myths about copyright seen on the net and cover issues related to copyright and USENET/Internet publication.
It is true that a notice strengthens the protection, by warning people, and by allowing one to get more and different damages, but it is not necessary. If it looks copyrighted, you should assume it is. This applies to pictures, too. You may not scan pictures from magazines and post them to the net, and if you come upon something unknown, you shouldn't post that either.
The correct form for a notice is:
"Copyright [dates] by [author/owner]"You can use C in a circle © instead of "Copyright" but "(C)" has never been given legal force. The phrase "All Rights Reserved" used to be required in some nations but is now not legally needed most places. In some countries it may help preserve some of the "moral rights."
Some argue that posting to Usenet implicitly grants permission to everybody to copy the posting within fairly wide bounds, and others feel that Usenet is an automatic store and forward network where all the thousands of copies made are done at the command (rather than the consent) of the poster. This is a matter of some debate, but even if the former is true (and in this writer's opinion we should all pray it isn't true) it simply would suggest posters are implicitly granting permissions "for the sort of copying one might expect when one posts to Usenet" and in no case is this a placement of material into the public domain. It is important to remember that when it comes to the law, computers never make copies, only human beings make copies. Computers are given commands, not permission. Only people can be given permission. Furthermore it is very difficult for an implicit licence to supersede an explicitly stated licence that the copier was aware of.
Note that all this assumes the poster had the right to post the item in the first place. If the poster didn't, then all the copies are pirated, and no implied licence or theoretical reduction of the copyright can take place.
(*) Copyrights can expire after a long time, putting something into the public domain, and there are some fine points on this issue regarding older copyright law versions. However, none of this applies to an original article posted to USENET.
Note that granting something to the public domain is a complete abandonment of all rights. You can't make something "PD for non-commercial use." If your work is PD, other people can even modify one byte and put their name on it.
The "fair use" exemption to (U.S.) copyright law was created to allow things such as commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education about copyrighted works without the permission of the author. That's important so that copyright law doesn't block your freedom to express your own works -- only the ability to express other people's. Intent, and damage to the commercial value of the work are important considerations. Are you reproducing an article from the New York Times because you needed to in order to criticise the quality of the New York Times, or because you couldn't find time to write your own story, or didn't want your readers to have to register at the New York Times web site? The first is probably fair use, the others probably aren't.
Fair use is usually a short excerpt and almost always attributed. (One should not use more of the work than is necessary to make the commentary.) It should not harm the commercial value of the work -- in the sense of people no longer needing to buy it (which is another reason why reproduction of the entire work is a problem.)
Note that most inclusion of text in Usenet followups is for commentary and reply, and it doesn't damage the commercial value of the original posting (if it has any) and as such it is fair use. Fair use isn't an exact doctrine, either. The court decides if the right to comment overrides the copyright on an individual basis in each case. There have been cases that go beyond the bounds of what I say above, but in general they don't apply to the typical net misclaim of fair use.
The "fair use" concept varies from country to country, and has different names (such as "fair dealing" in Canada) and other limitations outside the USA.
Facts and ideas can't be copyrighted, but their expression and structure can. You can always write the facts in your own words.
See the DMCA alert for recent changes in the law.
You generally trademark terms by using them to refer to your brand of a generic type of product or service. Like an "Apple" computer. Apple Computer "owns" that word applied to computers, even though it is also an ordinary word. Apple Records owns it when applied to music. Neither owns the word on its own, only in context, and owning a mark doesn't mean complete control -- see a more detailed treatise on this law for details.
You can't use somebody else's trademark in a way that would steal the value of the mark, or in a way that might make people confuse you with the real owner of the mark, or which might allow you to profit from the mark's good name. For example, if I were giving advice on music videos, I would be very wary of trying to label my works with a name like "mtv." :-) You can use marks to critcise or parody the holder, as long as it's clear you aren't the holder.
Yes, that means almost all "fan fiction" is arguably a copyright violation. If you want to write a story about Jim Kirk and Mr. Spock, you need Paramount's permission, plain and simple. Now, as it turns out, many, but not all holders of popular copyrights turn a blind eye to "fan fiction" or even subtly encourage it because it helps them. Make no mistake, however, that it is entirely up to them whether to do that.
There is a major exception -- criticism and parody. The fair use provision says that if you want to make fun of something like Star Trek, you don't need their permission to include Mr. Spock. This is not a loophole; you can't just take a non-parody and claim it is one on a technicality. The way "fair use" works is you get sued for copyright infringement, and you admit you did copy, but that your copying was a fair use. A subjective judgment on, among other things, your goals, is then made.
However, it's also worth noting that a court has never ruled on this issue, because fan fiction cases always get settled quickly when the defendant is a fan of limited means sued by a powerful publishing company. Some argue that completely non-commercial fan fiction might be declared a fair use if courts get to decide. You can read more
While copyright law makes it technically illegal to reproduce almost any new creative work (other than under fair use) without permission, if the work is unregistered and has no real commercial value, it gets very little protection. The author in this case can sue for an injunction against the publication, actual damages from a violation, and possibly court costs. Actual damages means actual money potentially lost by the author due to publication, plus any money gained by the defendant. But if a work has no commercial value, such as a typical E-mail message or conversational USENET posting, the actual damages will be zero. Only the most vindictive (and rich) author would sue when no damages are possible, and the courts don't look kindly on vindictive plaintiffs, unless the defendants are even more vindictive.
The author's right to control what is done with a work, however, has some validity, even if it has no commercial value. If you feel you need to violate a copyright "because you can get away with it because the work has no value" you should ask yourself why you're doing it. In general, respecting the rights of creators to control their creations is a principle many advocate adhering to.
In addition, while more often than not people claim a "fair use" copying incorrectly, fair use is a valid concept necessary to allow the criticism of copyrighted works and their creators through examples. But please read more about it before you do it.