What do you know about Copyright Law?


Yes, copyright law is not the most fascinating topic in the world, but as we move to more and more eResources and online content, it becomes more important to have a basic understanding of copyright law than ever.  You may have heard of the recent internet kerfuffle regarding Cooks Source magazine where a blogger found that a piece she had written for her own blog turned up in this advertiser-supported magazine without her permission.  When the blogger contacted the editor, she received this now-famous response:

…the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!…you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally….We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me!

This resulted in a huge internet backlash which has basically killed Cooks Source and humiliated editor Judith Griggs.

So what can we learn from this?

The most obvious lesson is to never use someone else’s work without his or her permission.  As a student, plagiarizing can result in a failing grade, and destroy your credibility; as a professional, it can ruin your career.  But copyright law exists not just to ruin lives and make money for some, it actually is a fascinating and ever-evolving part of American life that you use more than you think.

A little history:

Copyright law was created to encourage creativity “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  The idea was, that if people were forced to come up with new ideas or improve upon ideas already in existence–everyone wins, by furthering technology and the arts for the greater good.  After a certain amount of time, copyright would expire and the work moves into the public domain where anyone can use them at will.  This is why we have books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Copyright law, as established in 1790, was good for a period of 14 years with the option of 14 year renewal (sounds a little like the library).  In 1831, copyright was extended to 28 years with a 14 year renewal, then in 1909 it was extended to 28 years with 28 year renewal.

The next major change to copyright law came in 1976 with the appropriately named Copyright Act of 1976.  This act changed the structure of copyright law in the US and remains the system upon which all subsequent changes are based.  This act, among other things, established the idea of fair use.  Fair use had been used by courts since the 1800’s, but hadn’t been codified until the 1976 act.

Fair use is a particularly important aspect of copyright law to understand, as it often comes into play in scholarly research.  Fair use dictates that for the purpose of comment, criticism and parody, copyrighted materials may be used by someone other than the copyright holder.  This allows students to quote part of another person’s work when writing an analysis of it, and it allows comedians and satirists to make fun of current events/works without fear of repercussion.  Fair use is also the law that allows professors to photocopy readings for students to place on reserve though a person is not allowed to photocopy an entire work, just a percentage.

The 1976 act determined that the length of copyright be the life of the creator plus 50 years.  In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act added another 20 years to this meaning that current copyrights exist for the life of the creator plus 70 years.  This extension in the US did not extend to copyrights that had already been in the public domain, but when the UK passed a similar law, theirs did.  Works that had previously been public domain, most notably the works of James Joyce, were suddenly re-protected under copyright law.

The Copyright Term Extension Act in the US recently came under fire due to the facebook game scrabulous.  Scrabulous was a Scrabble-like game created by an Indian company.  As the game grew more popular, Hasbro, who owns the copyright for scrabble, sued the company and shut down scrabulous.  This prompted people to question why a game that so many had grown up with was not in the public domain yet.  Even though the original Scrabble game was created in 1938, the creator did not die until 1993, meaning that Hasbro owns Scrabble until 2063.

Even though we may not think of them much, copyright laws sneak into almost everything we do, and ignorance of the law is rarely a good excuse.  Fortunately, there are easy ways to determine if the work you want to use is in the public domain or not.  The Library of Congress has created this groovy digital slider, that helps you figure it out, and the complete copyright law is all available online.  University of Texas has created a crash course in copyright for those who want the basics on everything from videos to diagrams to sound recordings, and the US Copyright Office has many easy-to-read and understand guides on its site.