If you have a blog, whether you realize it or not, copyright is a subject that directly impacts your life.
Not only are you constantly creating new copyrighted works while making your blog but, most likely, you are integrating other’s works into your site including your blogging application (IE: WordPress), your theme, images with your posts, quotes, etc.
However, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on matters of copyright. Some of it is because the law is genuinely confusing, some of it is caused by misinformation that is being spread around the Web and much of it is the simple fact that most bloggers aren’t interested in these issues.
Unfortunately, those who are ignorant about the law often step into traps while wading through it and these pitfalls can both limit your rights to control your own work and cause you to be threatened or sued by others.
As a blogger, it is best to have at least some knowledge of copyright so you can protect yourself. With that in mind, here are five copyright facts every blogger should know.
1. If It’s Saved, It’s Copyrighted
There is no requirement to place a notice on your work for it to be considered copyrighted nor do you have to register your work with any third party. A creative work is considered copyrighted the moment it is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression“. Once you save your work to your hard drive (or server), doodle a sketch onto a napkin or put that painting on canvas, it is copyrighted.
Though you can’t copyright ideas, just their expression, and you do need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office if you are U.S. citizen and wish to be able to sue for copyright infringement and collect all potential damages. However, that has nothing to do with your rights in the work and your ability to demand removal of infringing copies.
On the counter side, unless you have some significant reason to believe otherwise, assume all works you encounter on the Web are copyrighted and threat them as such.
2. There is No Golden Rule for Fair Use
Though others like to talk about rules such as X number of words in a blog post or X number of seconds in a song, there is no magic “bright line” on matters of fair use.
In short, fair use is a defense against a copyright infringement lawsuit and it is determined on a case-by-case basis, not by any hard rules. Judges and juries weigh four factors when looking at fair use and those factors get weighed differently almost every time.
There are some uses that are clearly fair and others that are clearly not. In between there is a wide swatch of gray area that could, quite literally, go either way.
3. Attribution is No Substitute for Permission
Though attribution is a good thing to give, it doesn’t give a green light to use a work as you see fit.
Attributing a work simply prevents its use from being a plagiarism. However, plagiarism and copyright infringement are two separate ideas. Not all cases of plagiarism are infringements and not all infringements are plagiarism.
If you want to use someone’s work on your site, get permission to do so. You can do this either by asking the person directly or looking for works licensed under Creative Commons licenses and then completing the terms of the license.
Failure to get permission to use a work can result in a cease and desist letter, takedown notice being filed or, in extreme cases, a lawsuit. On the flip side, don’t assume just because others attribute your work that it isn’t infringing. If you don’t want your work used in that capacity, you have the right to stop it.
4. You Can’t Copyright Names or Ideas
Though you can copyright a wide variety of content including literary works, photographs, paintings, movies, sound recordings and even hull designs, you can not copyright a name or an idea.
Names fall under the realm of trademark law, which deals with names and marks used in business. Trademark is much more limited in scope of protection than copyright for many reasons but the crux of it is that it is designed to prevent confusion in the marketplace. Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets, for example, can have the same name because they are in two different markets.
Ideas fall under patent law. Patents must be applied for and approved through a lengthy and expensive process and not all ideas are patentable.
For more information on trademarks and patents, visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
5. Changing a Few Words Does Not Create a New Work
Finally, just because the copying isn’t verbatim does not mean that it isn’t an infringement. Copyright is not just a right to copy a work, but rather a set of exclusive rights including the right to make derivative works. A derivative work is a new work based upon the original and can include not only works with minor changes, such as moving a few words around, but also more substantial changes such as sequels and spin offs.
Though determining whether a work is a derivative work or not is a gray area problem similar to fair use, the test is whether an “ordinary observer” would notice that the new work is based on the original. Changing a few words or names around certainly fails that test.
Always remember that, just because a work is not identical to the original does not mean it is not an infringement.
This is, of course, just a basic overview of some of the most important pieces of information bloggers need to know when it comes to copyright. I tried to focus on areas where there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation but, clearly, there is a lot more ground to cover.
The bottom line though is that, if you are a blogger, you owe it to yourself to have an understanding of how copyright works both so you can enforce your rights and you can avoid troubles of your own down the road.
You don’t have to be an expert on copyright, but it helps to at least understand the basics and how it can affect you.