Current copyright laws are woefully inadequate for the digital age; seminal legislation such as Title 17 in the United States, the Berne Convention, and the treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization were designed by and large before the Internet came into being in the early 1990s. As such, when those laws were signed, the distribution channels were tightly controlled by a few corporate interests and the barriers to entry into the media marketplace were extremely high. The copyright laws only needed to be propagated to a few selected individuals because only those working with intellectual property on a daily basis would be concerned anyway.
That all changed with the Internet, and even more so when personal blogs leveled the playing field. Now everyone can be their own media outlet, publishing blog posts on a daily or even more frequent basis. To say this is problematic is a bit of an understatement. Regular people take other’s creative work without attribution, or even without considering the possibility that attribution would be required. They make the statement that “it’s on the Internet, so it must be free.” Then there’s outrage when the original creator politely sends them a request to take down the image (or at least properly attribute it). Which always, and inevitably, makes me sigh about the troubles behind attribution and media usage in the age of the Internet.
This is due to a woeful misunderstanding of copyright law, which affects everything that is now and will be published anywhere. I’ll limit myself to U.S. law here, since that’s the one I’m most familiar with. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and nothing here should be taken as legal advice.)
In a general sense, everything that’s created is immediately protected under U.S. copyright law, so as it is “published” according to the definitions laid out in this guidance from the U.S. Copyright Office. This article that you’re reading is, by virtue of the fact that I’m creating it, immediately copyright-protected under the laws of the United States. I am well within my legal right to prosecute anyone (and everyone) who wants to copy this article without properly attributing it to me. This type of permission is why I’ve installed the Repost.Us plugin (the wee little button you see somewhere at the top of this article) — to make it possible to syndicate my articles without emailing me directly.
But back to Title 17. The text of Chapter One, Subsection 102 (Subject matter of copyright: In general) reads:
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.
These classifications can be applied rather broadly; a podcast could fall under the “sound recordings” definition, for example, and a webisode is in the same class as a movie or television show. Literary works applies to things like news articles, books, poetry, and blog posts. Really, once something is published by the original creator or that person’s agent (i.e., employer) then the item is immediately copyrighted. Which is why it’s so problematic that the average consumer believes anything published for free on the Internet is immediately free for their use. (Incidentally, that improvised speech you gave at the company meeting isn’t copyright-protected, but your PowerPoint slides probably are.)
This doesn’t even begin to consider the fair use doctrine, which is a minefield and a half to navigate sometimes. Since there’s no specified number of lines or seconds of video/audio that you can use without infringing on the creator’s copyright, the better pathway is to ask first. You’ll notice the related articles and featured image at the bottom and top of this article are not my own creations. I use a syndication service, called Zemanta, to generate that content. There’s a plethora of syndication around here, and the entire purpose for that is ensure proper attribution so I don’t run afoul of copyright protections.
A specific way to do that for images is to make use of something like Zemanta, or ensure that you’re only searching for images licensed for commercial reuse and modification under the Creative Commons service. These tactics are all because, in a very real sense, just because something’s on the Internet does not mean it’s free for you to use.