Copyright Law For The Layman

A basic understanding of copyright laws eplained for the layman. When using someone else's work, if it isn't considered

The issue of copyright is a tedious and delicate line. The law of "fair use", which some have called a justification for copyright infringement, allows for a limited use of copyright material for one's own purposes. Unfortunately, between international borders and a variety of copyright laws, there seems to be no clear indication of what, specifically, constitutes "fair use".

Surprisingly few people realize that all written material, whether it caries an author's byline or an anonymous name, is covered by copyright law. This means that no part of the material may be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the copyright holder.

What is further misunderstood is the way copyrights are held and sold. There are several ways that a writer can choose to give the rights to his work. Some publishers ask only for first rights, meaning that they hold the copyright only until the piece is published, when all of the rights revert to the author. At that point, the author may choose to re-sell the article as a reprint elsewhere.

If, however, the publisher takes full, exclusive rights, the author no longer retains the copyright and cannot re-sell the work elsewhere. The publisher, holding full rights to the piece, can sell it again and again if they should choose.

While the advantages and disadvantages of these agreements are a topic for another article, what is relevant is that copyright is something both owned and protected. When an individual takes part or all of another's piece of work and sells it for their own gain, serious copyright infringement may have occurred.

Though highly controversial, the law of copyright currently also protects Internet material. Personal home pages, e-zines and even e-mail messages might carry a disclaimer at the bottom stating something to the effect of: "All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form, without prior written permission."

What this means is that although a poem, story, or message might amuse you enough to want to put it up at your own website, the simple act of cutting and pasting could land you in real trouble. In order to safely "borrow" this material, one must first obtain express permission from the rights holder to use it.

Another misconception is the notion that giving credit is the same as getting permission. Giving credit involves adding the author's name to a piece of work. Though having a name stripped from a published work is disturbing, (as is often seen in "anonymous" e-mail forwards) simply giving someone credit for their own work does not allow another individual to use it without permission. Nor is it sufficient to simply site their work in a reference page. Perhaps this explains why so many are confused by the difference between the terms "plagiarism" and "copyright".

Plagiarism is the act of taking another's words as your own. Taking a poem off of your favorite website and putting your name in the byline is blatant plagiarism. Copyright is a little more subtle than that. Taking the first verse of the poem, giving credit to the author, and posting it at your website could be construed as "fair use". Or, it might be perceived as copyright infringement. How do we know the difference? Though the intricacies of fair use delve too deeply for one article, there are a few good rules to follow:

Typically there are five exemptions that allow fair usage of a work, and they fall loosely into the categories of criticism/commentary, parody/satire, education/research, news reporting and teaching. If your use for the work does not fall under one of these categories, then there are two further points to consider.

How much of the work are you taking without permission? If you take the entire poem, you are publishing or reproducing a complete work for which you have no permission to do so. The owner of the copyright in this case has good cause for complaint.

If, however, the poem is only eight lines long, and you have taken the first four, a full fifty percent of the piece, though you might be able to plead your case, chances are you are still overstepping the bounds. If you borrow one or two lines of the poem and give full credit to the author, it is more than likely that this would be deemed acceptable "fair use".

The second question is whether you are profiting from the use of this work. If you are using someone else's words, art or music for your own gain, either as part of advertising, as a considerable part of your own original work, or for any other profitable reason, you should tread carefully. Copyright holders have the rights to that work, and in many cases have paid for them. They are seldom amused to see someone else making an undeserved dollar at their loss.

We've all seen cases of recording music from friends, taping a movie from the rental store, or "borrowing" a poem for a school project. Though it is unlikely that these cases would ever see firm repercussions, technically each of these is an infringement of someone else's rights. The real problems arise when one is using another's work publicly, and for personal gain. Particularly in this age of technology, where the transfer of information is so easy, it is prudent to err on the cautious side when using the work of others. Feigning ignorance of the laws not only reduce one's credibility, but opens the doors for possible lawsuits.

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