From the Archives – 5 Copyright Law Myths

(Friends, you may have noticed that I have not been doing much blogging lately. I have been suffering from a as-yet-undiagnosed illness that makes me very lethargic and unable to think clearly. I actually tried to make a phone call with the television remote last week. This has been compounded by a subluxated hip. That means that I took a nasty fall in my usual ungraceful way and twisted my left hip about 90 degrees. It hurts like hell. So while I am dealing with these issues, writing three to five hundred sensible and understandable words at one time is just too tough. Until I can get back on track, I will post some older blogs you may have missed. Thanks for your patience.)


(This was first posted by me in January 2010; I have updated it a little.)

Most of these things have irked me for a long time. But when I jumped (or maybe belly-flopped) into social media in 2009, I found these myths or misunderstandings were more pervasive and common than I expected, particularly among bloggers. And I still see them all the time. Grrrrrr.

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 or trademark law, but the requirements for protection under those laws are very different and usually very stringent.

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

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

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

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 have the right to copy someone else’s blog and paste it here, no matter how much money I make – or don’t make – from it.

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 always 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.  But registration of your copyright, while not required for your rights to attach, is desirable for a number of reasons.


If you are looking for more information, 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.  I will be happy to answer other questions in the comments.


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