Copyright Part 1

People’s view of copyright depends very much on where they stand. I’m not talking about nationality, although that is a problem with the global nature of the web: what may be copyright in one country may be free for all somewhere else. No, what I mean is whether you’re paying for copyright or being paid for it.

Ultimately, under agreed international conventions, an author should be able to enjoy the benefits of their work, be it books or images or even software. That means that anyone who “uses” the author’s work should pay for the privilege, usually in the form of a copyright payment.

Sometimes, such as in the case of books or software, that payment is concealed in the original cost. Other times a small payment is made to the author or his/her agent for a use fee, such as in the case of images, music and such.

At its very heart, copyright is simply payment for work done. Who could argue with that? Plenty of people.

  • Software Pirates:
    who can honestly say that they’ve NEVER used software for which they’ve not paid a licence (and that includes copies of WinZip where people just ignore the “nag” screens when it goes past the evaluation period)?
  • Peer-to-peer sharers:
    how many of you have mp3s or videos that you couldn’t find on the legal download sites and so were forced to use a torrent program to get? Me neither
  • Website images:
    go to any fansite and you’ll see hundreds of images in breach of copyright. (no, it doesn’t make it right to tag on the line: “The copyright remains the property of the original authors”).

Now I hope you’re all thoroughly ashamed of yourselves. Well I can offer you some crumbs of comfort in some cases: it’s called fair use, or by others “a right pain in the ass”.

Fair use can be determined by a four-part test:

1. What is the purpose and character of the use, including the commercial nature?
This has two effects, it allows use if you are quoting parts for review or academic purposes and also allows greater use for non-commercial purposes (this does NOT mean that if you are a non-profit — typically a church or school — you can freely photocopy or otherwise violate others’ copyrights). This applies mostly to written material.

2. The nature of the copyrighted work
Does it have copyright? Is it copyright-free? Can it be copyrighted (ideas, for example, cannot be copyrighted)? Is it open source? Do you own the copyright? Has the copyright run out?

3. The proportion that is “taken”
This is the real “pain in the ass” bit — this does NOT mean that you are allowed to sample so many percent of an image or tune or passage; it’s more a case of how substantive is the taking? Does it take the most important, original, or defining part of the copyrighted work and use it in such a way that it takes away the VALUE of the original or use the taken part to give/create value to their own work, in other words, you cannot “write” a column by taking a piece of someone else’s writing, put large chunks of it in quotes and call it a review.

4. The economic impact of the taking
By taking from the copyrighted material, do you inhibit the original author from profiting from their own work?

Commercial concerns should abide by copyright rules — after all, they would be reaching for the lawyer if some started stealing their services; however, in practice, the first test is all that applies for most hobby sites because of their non-commercial nature, although strictly speaking the minute you stick Google Ad-Words on your site you release yourself from the security of non-profit-making status.

And much though legal departments will claim it isn’t so, there is a reluctance to sepnd large amounts of money and court time chasing the little guy for copyright infringements amounting to pennies and winning lots of bad PR in the process. (The music companies are an exception, it seems). However, if you are ever asked to remove copyrighted material by the author or their agents, do so.

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