When I first went online as an AOL newbie, one of the first discussions I got into was about copyright. It wasn’t a long discussion. 3, maybe 4 posts back and forth with someone. A person had written something to one of the discussion boards on AOL, and I said I was going to steal it. I was reminded that AOL Terms of Service at that time reserved copyright to anything posted to their boards. Only the person who wrote the item had license to use it beyond that board.
That got my attention. I’m no lawyer, and I couldn’t even begin to start citing all the legal precedents surrounding copyright law. But that wakeup served as a kind of “shot across the bow” to me, made me realize that this wonderful online world of sharing information was also going to be a hotbed of controversy around the idea of “owning” ideas.
While I think the “battle” between music listeners and the recording industry, and movie watchers and the movie industry both provide clear illustrations of this, I’m much more concerned with the ownership of the written word. Everyone’s written word. At issue is what right you have to (potentially or actually) profit from, and retain ownership of, the ideas and opinions that you express.
Some time ago, US Copyright Law was changed such that you didn’t have to actively obtain the registered “license” known as a copyright to have copyright ownership of the materials you produce. Here’s a link that provides some good explanation of the how’s and why’s of registration. If copyright infringement comes to a lawsuit, that’s important information. It affects what you do and don’t get even if you win such a suit.
But, more important, I think, is an associated concept called “Fair Use.” This is not a clear-cut and easily defined right. As a layman advocate for Fair Use, I generally use the US Copyright Office, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation for guidance. Fair Use rights give us some limited rights to borrow a bit of someone else’s published work for the purposes of education, discussion, and debate. But the right has limits. We cannot use the entire work. Not even if we provide full reference (ISBN number, URL/Web Link, etc). And we have to… well… to discuss it, talk about it. We can’t simply paste it somewhere cite the source, and that’s it.
And this is something we the users, the talkers, have to discuss. In many ways, Web site operators with user discussion forums, they’re shielded by something called the Digitial Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). There’s a “Service Provider Exemption” (my term, not theirs) that protects the forum operator, as long as the operator has a policy and a system in place for dealing with copyright violations. So the original publisher isn’t going to sue Delphi Forums, or Howardforums, or About.com. They are going to sue you. If it gets to that.
Fair Use isn’t a well-defined legal code. How much of a published work can you use, for example? From what I understand, the law is all over the place on that. There isn’t a percent, or number of words standard for it. Just realize that the more you cite of someone’s work, even if you give them proper credit, the closer you come to violating this. And Web site operators who ignore this run the risk of losing that DMCA shield I mentioned above. So it’s worth everyone’s effort to at least be familiar with Fair Use, and gain an understanding of what it clearly does, and does not, permit.