There are so many myths and misconceptions concerning copyright law and copyright infringement that I felt it necessary to present the most common elements regarding these issues in an easy to read format. Hopefully this short piece will answer any questions you might have concerning copyright issues.
On January 1st, 1978, the new U.S. copyright law went into effect. The Copyright Act can be viewed at http://www.loc.gov/copyright/title17
Q. What types of works are protected by copyright laws?
A. Literary works, this includes ANY original work and extends to novels, poetry, prose, technical manuals, directories, brochures, compilations newspapers articles, a haiku even a catalog. More important to webmastes is that CODE is protected as well. Musical works including ad jingles, songs and instrumentals. Dramatic works such as plays, graphic and pictoral works including cartoons, drawings, paintings photographs and posters.
Q. Are there any requirements to receive protection under the federal law?
A. Yes. the work must be original and fixed. The work doesn't have to be one of a kind, for example, if you write a book about Bass fishing techniques it is original without being unique. There will be other books on Bass fishing techniques sitting beside it on bookshelves. Fixed means that the work must not be transitory but recorded in a medium that allows for reproduction- typed, written, recorded, etc.
Q. If it doesn't have a copyright mark is it protected by copyright?
A. More than likely YES. If the work was created after March 1st, 1989 any copyright mark or notice is OPTIONAL. Copyright marks take the following forms:
© followed by a date and name
"Copyright" followed by a date and name.
"Copr" followed by a date and name.
Q. Copyrights only last for 70 years so a work written in 1912 is no longer copyrighted right?
A. NO. A copyright for a work created by an individual is good for 70 years AFTER the author's death.
Q. Can you copyright a list of links?
A. Yes. The manner in which the links are compiled, arranged and presented is protected by copyright. A simple alphabetical list of books in the Bible is NOT protected under copyright.
Q. If it's on the web it's in the public domain isn't it?
A. Not any more than a book in a library is. Works on the web are protected by the same copyright laws that protect works that aren't.
Q. As long as I don't charge anything for people to see the copyrighted work I can use it on my website can't I?
A. No. Unless it's being used under the Fair Use Act provision. In fact, this provision is so arbitrary that I don't recommend ever using it.
Q. If I only use a small portion of a text it's okay isn't it?
A. De minimis use is okay, however, if the portion you use constitutes the main theme or an underlying current of thought prominent throughout the work then you may well be infringing on a copyright. Using a quote from a work to compare or contrast is protected under fair use.
Q. If I attribute the work can I use it.
A. No, unless you have acquired permsission. Attribution does not relieve you from getting permission to use a copyrighted work.
Q. If I paraphrase the entire work can I use it?
A. No, the work's expression may be protected by copyright, this makes you a plagairist.
Q. Can I copy anything at all? Ever?
A. Yes. Facts are free game. You can copy facts from a copyrighted work. Make sure you copy FACTS and not estimates or opinions. 144 pieces equals 1 gross is a fact. The Mets suck is an opinion. The Mets might suck next year is an estimate.
Q. I got permission from the author of the website to use the picture of Snoopy that was on his site so I am not infringing am I?
A. Yes, you are. You have to get permission from the copyright owner, not another copyright infringer. Unless the site's owner is Charles Schulz's family or a representative of the artist that can legally provide permission both you and the person giving you permission to use it are infringing.
Q. All this is really complicated, is there an easy way to make sure I don't infringe on someone's copyright?
A. Yes, ask permission from the copyright owner to use the work. First you need to FIND the copyright owner. You can do this by visiting http://www.loc.gov/copyright/title17. This contains works copyrighted after 1 January 1978. You can also check the Catalog of Copyright Entries. This can prove handy in searching for older copyright owners. The CCE was discontinued in 1982 but still available in most libraries. You can order a copyright search from http://www.loc.gov/copyright/forms/ by simply downloading the appropriate form and mailing it with the fee.
This is by no means meant as a comprehensive work on copyright law, it is intended to answer the most frequent questions and issues I have seen regarding copyright issues. If you have more detailed questions feel free to write to me at dean%40spider-food.net and I will be more than happy to answer them. I am NOT a lawyer however. If you need legal advice the best advice I can give you is to hire an attorney.
In almost every instance I can think of, if you didn't create the work, you should ask permission to use it.