Core Copyright

Copyright essentials for everyday creators

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Copyright Myths & Misconceptions

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Before I delve into the substantive law and theory of U.S. copyright, I will address some common myths and misconceptions I have heard routinely about this topic. As I have outlined previously, copyright now is commonly applicable to people’s everyday actions. This wide applicability, however, has not necessarily resulted in the average Joe and Jane having a higher copyright IQ.

One need look no further than Twitter to see how many of these misconceptions get originated and repeated. I have seen tweets that claimed to copyright a hairdo. I have seen tweets that assumed the year’s passage would allow them to freely copy on Jan. 1 work that was protected by copyright on Dec. 31. (Both statements are incorrect.)

But folks on Twitter are not the only ones who commonly commit basic copyright errors. News journalists — who really should know better — frequently get basic copyright concepts incorrect. Too often reporters conflate copyright and other forms of intellectual property. Even intellectual property lawyers routinely provide incorrect information about U.S. copyright. For example, I have seen posts from intellectual property lawyers that claim “If you find a picture on Flickr, another blog, or somewhere else online and upload it to your own blog (or worse yet, inline link to it from your blog) without permission, you’re committing a copyright violation.” On its face, that is simply an incorrect statement, mainly because it fails to allow for a raft of limitations in the Copyright Act of 1976.

Thus, with this post, I address (and hopefully resolve) some of the common copyright myths I have seen, heard, or encountered in my years of dealing with this topic. Consider this to be the first in a recurring series: I will provide updates occasionally as I come across newer and more interesting or perplexing myths and misconceptions.

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Welcome to Core Copyright

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Most initiatives like this arise from a Howard Beale moment. Appropriately enough for an online venture, ours occurred on Twitter.

A “follow” of our Copycense feed (see @copycense) posted a story on our mutual timelines about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) shutting down a municipality’s free wireless network based upon an allegation of illegal downloading and distribution of movies. In reading the story, however, several things struck us as odd. First and foremost, we were reasonably confident that there is nothing in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that seems to sanction disabling of an entire Internet service in the case of alleged or actual illegal downloading, no matter who the purported copyright owner may be. Does the DMCA provide Internet service providers (ISPs) with protection against lawsuits under certain conditions? Yes. But forcing an entire network out of commission? That seemed a stretch.

Another “follow” provided a competing (and seemingly more reliable) story that reported the municipality disabled the network on its own, and the MPAA did not request that the municipality shut down the network. This second story and further research made two things apparent: (a) copyright law had affected the everyday activities of citizens, a municipality, and a newspaper; and (b) the municipality and the newspaper had absolutely no clue about copyright, since the town disabled the network when it didn’t need to, and the newspaper’s reporter totally botched key aspects of the story.

(And don’t blame the reporter from the relatively small newspaper for not knowing any better. I’ve seen reporters from The New York Times routinely report incorrectly on copyright stories as well.)

The bottom line is this: never has copyright law affected so many Americans, yet so few Americans know anything about it. There are several people who routinely and freely discuss copyright law online, including William Patry, Michael Geist, and Ben Sheffner. The information provided through these outlets, however, is for advanced and experienced audiences: lawyers, policy makers, and law professors. In contrast, there really is no introductory material — online or in text — that allows the average person without legal training to access some basic, unbiased, educational information about the U.S. copyright system.

This publication seeks to fill that void. Core Copyright seeks to make copyright, information policy and related issues clear and understandable to the average citizen creator, be it a 7-year-old making a collage, or a 70-year-old creating needlepoint — all while maintaining high standards of scholarly and journalistic rigor. Core Copyright is a complement to Copycense, our sister publication. Copycense will continue to provide scholarly and editorial at intermediate and advanced levels for lawyers, law students, policy makers, lobbyists, and law professors. In contrast, Core Copyright is for citizens who just want to know more about this thing called copyright.

In other words, to paraphrase Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Copycense serves the bourgeoisie, while Core Copyright appeals to the boulevard.

Copyright once was something that only concerned specialists, entertainment corporations, lobbyists and legislators. Now — with the lower barriers of creative production and distribution wrought by computer power, software packages, and the World Wide Web — copyright arguably is as much a citizen’s issue as a corporate issue. Citizens are copyright stakeholders now, as much as corporate copyright owners have been. Our goal is to help citizens understand and appreciate copyright better than they do now. We look forward to exchanging useful dialogue and learning about copyright, information policy and related matters so that all may “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and “secur[e] for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

© Copyright 2009, Core Copyright

Written by K Matthew Dames

11/20/2009 at 09:00