5 Copyright Law Myths

I have only been a blogger for a couple of months, but most of these things have irked me for a long time. When I jumped into social media in 2009, I found these myths or misunderstandings were more pervasive and common than I expected, particularly among bloggers.

Myth #1: It’s spelled copywrite.

Okay, a misspelling is not a myth, but it bugs me.  Looking up the proper spelling would take about 15 seconds.

The reason it is called (and spelled) copyright is because the law gives the creator of certain “works of authorship” the exclusive right to reproduce (“copy”) that content.  It is not about writing, per se, because even though certain writings are protected creative content, so are such diverse creations as musical works, dramatic works, pantomimes, graphic works, and architectural works.

MYTH #2: You can’t copy my idea.

The foremost purpose of copyright law is to encourage individual effort as a way to advance public knowledge and culture.  By limiting copyright protection to the author’s method of expressing an idea, and not to the idea itself, others can create and disseminate more work and information.  If I have a great new idea for HR practice, and I blog about it, that idea is not protected and others may use it, even if they took the idea from my blog.  The only thing copyright law protects is the particular words I used to express the idea.  Some ideas are protected by other laws, such as patent law, but the requirements for protection are usually very stringent.

MYTH #3: I wrote that title and you can’t use it.

Names, titles, slogans, and short phrases are not copyrightable.  This is true even if it is unique or novel.

MYTH #4: I can copy your work because I don’t make money with it.

This is probably a simplification of the “fair use” defense, but it is dangerous and inaccurate.  Under the fair use defense, the purpose and use of the infringing work, and whether that use is “commercial in nature”, is only one of four factors that a court might look at to determine whether there is actionable infringement.  Not making money with the copy is not definitive.  I don’t make money with this blog, but I certainly don’t have the right to copy someone else’s and paste it here.

Determining if a copy is an infringement or is fairly used is actually very difficult.  There is purposefully no specific number of words, lines, or percentages.  Each complaint is determined on a case-by-case basis.  The best way to avoid any complaint from a copyright holder is to get permission.  Acknowledging the source of your copy does not legally replace permission.

MYTH #5: I can copy your work because it does not say or show ©.

Under current law, neither notice (©) or registration is required for a copyright to attach to a given work.  A copyright is attached to original expression the moment it is fixed in a tangible form.  Registration of your copyright, while not required for your rights to attach, is desirable for a number of reasons.

The U.S. Copyright Office has an excellent website with a great FAQ section.  It will even tell you how to protect your Elvis sighting.  Other questions (and comments) welcomed!

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4 thoughts on “5 Copyright Law Myths”

  1. I would love to see you do a continuing blog series on copyright law! There is so much intrigue and so much misunderstanding. Great questions about digital rights permissions, creative commons license, what “fair use” means and what kind of trouble you could get in if you just use something and hope no one notices.

    keep it up!

  2. I was asked by a couple of people on Twitter to comment on Creative Commons, the non-profit organization that encourages the reproduction of words, music, and art without the need to ask permission, since the copyright holder has already granted permission through a Creative Commons license.

    I believe VERY STRONGLY in the dissemination and re-use of intellectual property. It is continuing use and re-use that fosters thought and creativity. This is the purpose of copyright law, and I think that Creative Commons is basically a excellent way to do this.

    My main concern about Creative Commons is that people may not take the time to read and learn before they choose a license. Allowing your work to become public domain without really understanding what you are giving up can lead to all kinds of headaches.

    So feel free to grant a license through Creative Commons. Just make sure you read ALL of the explanations first.

  3. Great post Joan and thanks for offering your perspective on Creative Commons. As a blogger I would be hypocritical in thinking that my work should not be used by others. In fact I want people to use it, as long as they provide proper acknowledgement. It’s about building and strengthening the community first.

    Thanks again Joan!

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