In my job, Copyright Laws and Intellectual Property come up for discussion on almost a daily basis. As a Freelance Designer, Â I uphold and respect these laws even if it means I loose an account due to refusal to copy or mimic someone’s work. Why wouldn’t I? Copyright Laws protect my designs too and let’s face it, my designs are how I make a living. So in an effort to set the record straight, I have compiled a list of the most frequently misunderstood laws and commonly held false beliefs.
1. If it’s on the internet, it’s not copyrighted. Wrong. Every picture, article, song, video, and design is protected by copyright law. As a rule of thumb, if you would like to use an image you found on the internet, contact the author and get permission. If permission is not received, don’t use it.
2. If I can’t find the author of an article, I can use it. Nope. Anything that is created has an original author. In the digital age where people think anything on the net is fair game, it can be exceedingly difficult to track down where the article originated if it has been re-posted multiple times but, again, that doesn’t mean that the original author has given up his rights. Don’t publish anything that you don’t have permission to use.
3. If it doesn’t have a copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted. You guessed it….wrong. As I stated above if it was created, it has an author and it is by default copyrighted. While it is good practice to watermark your photos and designs or include the standard ‘Copyright [dates] by [author/owner]’ on written pieces, leaving it off does not relinquish your rights as copyright holder.
4. If it’s an old photograph, the copyright has expired. Maybe, but probably not. The shortest Copyright Term is the lifespan of the author plus 70 years. Photographers, for example, might transfer the copyright to another member of the family prior to his/her death thereby ‘renewing’ the copyright. Once again, ask for permission from the copyright holder.
5. If I change it 10%, it’s a new work and I am the copyright holder. This is just ridiculous and completely wrong. I’d like to ask: what exactly constitutes 10%? Changing the font? Reversing the photo? Applying special effects? Replacing one name throughout an entire story? This is hands-down the biggest, most widely held, completely incorrect copyright myth out there. The notion that a photograph can be scanned and reversed and is now no longer the original work of the photographer is simply stupid. If you cannot use the photograph without the permission of the author, why would be be allowed to use it for manipulation to create your own work? The same principle holds for design. Derivative works can actually be considered property of the owner of the original work with the major exception of parody which is a super gray area for which I am not properly educated to elaborate on.
6. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. True. An idea cannot be copyrighted but the work based on that idea can be. This is where copyright law starts to get confusing. I understand it to mean, in a story for example, a woman’s husband is having an affair, she finds out, the story unfolds. This is an idea. VS. Jane, a high powered attorney, finds her husband Curt, a car salesman, cheating on her. Jane and Curt’s characters are copyrighted as are the actual words used to tell the story and what actually happens in the story.
7. If I don’t make money off of it, it’s not infringement. Wrong. It’s like saying, if I don’t get caught, I never committed a crime. I believe this idea stems from misinterpretation of ‘Fair Use’. Each case determining fair use is different and takes into consideration many aspects of the alleged infringement so don’t assume that you can use whatever you like just because you don’t make a profit by using it. I write this blog without profit, that doesn’t mean that I can simply hunt around the internet for articles I find interesting and paste them here as if I came up with them myself. In fact, even if I gave the original author full credit without gaining his or her permission to reproduce the work, I’d be in violation of copyright laws.
This is, of course, not a comprehensive explanation of copyright laws and I am by no means a lawyer (so don’t take the above as legal advise). The myths listed above are simply the one’s I encounter most frequently in my day-to-day life as a designer. There are many more out there so when in doubt if you didn’t create the work, you shouldn’t use it. If you’d like more information regarding copyright and intellectual property laws, visit http://www.copyright.gov/. For more information on copyright infringement, visit http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap5.html.
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