by Donna Ray Berkelhammer
Many people do not understand how work product is
protected and what you can do with other people's work. Let's take a look
at 10 copyright myths:
1. I have to register my work to get a
2. I can get a copyright by mailing my work to
Copyrights attach once an original work is "fixed" in a
"tangible" medium. So once the photographer takes the picture, the
author writes the blog, the graphic artist posts the logo, they have rights in
the work. These include the right to copy, distribute, display, perform
and make derivative works. Works on the internet are the protected work
product of the author, and using it without permission may be copyright infringment. Just posting
something online does not automatically put it in the public domain or make it
free for the taking.
registration, however, gives some pretty powerful benefits - easier
ways to calculate damages, presumed validity and ability to sue.
a copy of your work to yourself gives no rights. It may prove date of
creation, but not well.
3. If it is on the Internet or emailed to me I
can use it freely.
This can get you into big trouble, fast. Just ask Judith Griggs,
former editor of a former online magazine called Cooks
Source. Not every author is just so flattered that you are giving
them free exposure that they will not enforce their copyrights.
Owners who post content on the Internet are not giving up
their ownership or rights or putting their content into the public
4. If there is no notice, there is no copyright.
This used to be true, but since 1989, US copyright law
does not require notices. Assume work you
find, particularly online, is copyrighted by others, whether or not it
has the © symbol, or says "All Rights Reserved."
5. I can use whatever I want so long as I credit the
This is true in some situations. Some commercial
sites have easy to use licenses for graphic arts or photographic images that
ask only for credit to the author (Creative Commons, for example).
Other authors are not pleased to have free advertising or exposure from
your use and attribution. When in doubt, ask the owner.
6. I can take someone else's ideas or characters and
create my own work.
While it is true that copyright protects the expression
of an idea, not the idea itself, owners are given the right to make derivative
or adaptive works of their original works. Using other people's
characters is not permissible, but perhaps you could write a story about a
coastal resort town that doesn't want to warn people about shark attacks so as
not to ruin the summer tourism season without infringing Peter
Benchley's rights in "Jaws". A lot of "fan fiction" violates copyrights, but
often authors don't enforce their rights for various reasons.
7. If I use 10% or less, I can copy it.
8. If I don't charge for it, I can use it.
9. I can use it freely because I'm using it for
10. I can use it because I am a non-profit.
These statements all refer to the "fair use"exception to
US copyright infringement. "Fair
Use" is a defense to a claim of copyright infringement, and does not confer
any rights to use other people's work. It is a pretty limited exception
and is one of the most misunderstood areas of copyright law.
The "fair use" exemption was intended to
allow commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education about
copyrighted works without the permission of the author. Fair use is when you
use a snippet of someone else's work to make a point or critique it. Fair
use does not occur when a teacher copies a whole chapter in a book to use for
"educational purposes" or you copy the first three paragraphs of an online
newspaper article because you are too lazy to investigate the facts and write
your own story. Fair use is determined by evaluating four criteria on a
purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of
commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
nature of the copyrighted work;
amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the
copyrighted work as a whole;
effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the
Even if you have a strong fair use case, you may go broke
or decide to settle before the matter is resolved in court.
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