The Lit Maven

All Rights Reserved – including those to sue!

Posted on: December 8, 2010

Copyright is one of those crazy things in life that everyone knows a little bit about but chooses to ignore most of the time. Every now and then, some dramatic event happens in the news to bring focus back to copyright – anyone remember when Napster made “sharing” and “pirating” synonyms?  It was the heavy metal band Metallica that caught the drift of what was going on and sued followed by almost everyone else in music. The original Napster folded only to give birth to the entire music download industry.

Copyright issues have touched all of us at one time or another. Recently, my daughter ordered a t-shirt from Zazzle for a friend that used an expression from Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures.  Zazzle contacted her a scant 24 hours later saying that to print the shirt would be a breach of copyright.  This expression was heard once on the show and has never been printed on any shirt, mug or mouse pad to her knowledge.  She was disappointed. I was impressed.  Although Ghost Adventures is a fun reality show with a decent cult following, I was amazed that Zazzle knew about one phrase that had been used in the show once.

The pendulum can swing the other way into total ridiculousness though.  I ordered a cake once from a-wholesale-club-that-will-be-unnamed and asked The Cake People to put our non-profit organization’s (PhillyDotNet) logo on it.  That logo was created by my husband, is unique and now recognizable in the Philadelphia area.  It bears an image of the Liberty Bell – get it?  PHILLYDot Net?  I received a call a few hours later telling me that to put the logo on the cake would be a breach of copyright.  “Against whose copyright?” I yelped.  My husband created it.  I was attempting to put the logo on a cake with his permission.  The Cake Lady stared at me then said, “The Liberty Bell is copywritten”.  I had the good grace not to laugh until I got into my car.  I told her that the Liberty Bell is public domain (among so many other things).  I did not tell her what public domain meant – I didn’t want to exhaust her brain cells.  To no avail.  She flatly refused to use the logo.  The diabolical side of my mind was screaming that the underpaid, overworked, non-skilled workers in the cake department did not know how to transfer the logo onto the cake and used copyright as an excuse.  This particular club advertises that any picture can be put on any cake.  False advertising will surely be the focus of a future blog.  At least, in the end, they spelled PhillyDotNet right.

I am sure you have heard that corporations can be fined tens of thousands of dollars for copyright violation, but did you know that an innocent copyright infringer can be charged $200 or more?  Pleading, “I didn’t know!” won’t cut it – better write out a check now.

Here are some tidbits to file away:

Copyright goes into effect as soon as a work has been completed even if it doesn’t have that little c in the circle thing next to the title.

Copyright was not designed to make your life miserable but to protect creators, make sure they are paid for their work and ensure that they will continue to create. If Stephen King was not paid for his works, he would probably be a reclusive, mad scientist today.

Any work published before 1923 is in the public domain and can be used by the general public (Sorry, Charles Dickens!).  Did you know that the English Language is in the public domain?  If not, rabid lawyers would ensure that we were speaking gibberish today – just like they do. Oh wait!  Have they copyrighted gibberish yet?

An idea cannot be copywritten.  It is the way or the procedure in which the idea is implemented, used or produced that is copywritten.  Study up on Intellectual Property (of which copyright is a part) for more information about protecting ideas or go see the excellent film, Social Network.

Copyright is not limited to books (although it once was).  Images, music, podcasts and videos are too – which means anything on the Internet COULD be copywritten.

If you breach a copyright law at work, your company could be as liable as you.  This means that you could become an unemployment statistic within seconds.

Educational institutions as well as education non-profit companies have Fair Use.  There’s a fine line between fair use and infringement – make sure you know the difference.

We live in a global environment – check out laws in a country before you attempt to borrow or share a global something.  Practically every country in the world has its own copyright laws.

When in doubt, send a link to someone instead of an entire article, picture or video.

Need more information?  Oh, come on, you do!  Log onto – US Copyright Office, Copyright Clearance Center, American Library Association and Association of American Publishers.

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