Living Entrepreneurship Blog / Babson Entrepreneurs

Rethinking Copyright Myths From the Usenet Era

There are a number of popular myths regarding the use of copyrighted material, particularly due to the prevalence of Usenet and other internet materials. While these myths perpetuate, they are in fact myths. The first myth is that if something doesn’t have a copyright notice, it hasn’t been copyrighted. While this may have been true at one time, all major nations currently follow the Berne copyright convention. In the United States, nearly everything created after April 1, 1989 is protected by copyright, even without a notice. It is safest to assume that the work of other people is always copyrighted unless you have specific knowledge that it is not. The second popular myth is that you are only violating copyright laws if you charge for the material. It is violation of copyright law even if you don’t profit from the violation, especially if you decrease the commercial value of the property. The primary difference under the law for giving away property is that it may impact the damages awarded, but it is still a violation of the law even if you don’t profit. The third myth is that if the property has been posted to Usenet, it is now in the public domain. Unless the owner of the material explicitly places the work into the public domain, it is usually fair to say it is not. There is some debate that posting to Usenet grants fair use privileges, but this has not been decided in any true sense. More importantly, this requires the assumption that the original poster had the authority to post the materials in the first place. The fourth myth is that posting of the material was simply fair use. Under copyright law, fair use is generally limited to short, attributed excerpts, but also applies to things like commentary, parody, reporting, and education. Fair use isn’t an exact doctrine, and it’s a concept that varies from country to country. The fifth myth is that failing to defend a copyright forfeits the copyright. In reality, copyrights are virtually never lost. There is also a myth that names can be copyrighted, which is probably confusion with trade marks. Trade marks are an “ownership” of a word used within a specific context, and you cannot use a trade mark in a way that will decrease the value of the mark. The sixth myth is that making up new works based on another work belongs to you. United States copyright law is clear that “derivative works” belong to the owner of the original copyright. Utilizing someone else’s characters or settings requires permission of the author. “Fan fiction” is almost always a copyright violation, but is frequently encouraged by the owner. The exception is works of parody, which fall under the fair use provisions. The seventh myth is that a defendant has rights that will protect them from being sued. The reality is that copyright law is civil law, and doesn’t include the same protections afforded to a criminal defendant. In civil cases, you are far more likely to have less protection. The eighth myth is that copyright violations aren’t criminal at all. Again, this is false. In the United States, a commercial copyright violation with a value of more than $2500 is a felony. While not many of these cases are charged, you have to be careful because you could be. The ninth myth is that copyright violations are “free advertising” and don’t hurt the owner. Unfortunately, this is the owner’s decision and not yours. If an author wants your help in advertising their work, they’ll let you know. Otherwise assume that you don’t have permission, and that you may be hurting the creator. The tenth myth is that if a creator emails you a copy, you have a right to post that material. Having a copy of a copyrighted work does not grant you the copyright. All e-mails are copyrighted, but they aren’t secret. While you can report on the contents of an e-mail, republishing that material requires the permission of the author. There’s a final myth as well, that you can’t reproduce anything at all. Perhaps in learning about the other myths, you may believe that you can never reproduce anything. But in reality, copyright isn’t a complete barrier to publication. The main purpose of copyright is to protect the author’s right to commercial benefit and to give control over how a work is used. Because of these protections, caution should be used to protect the creator of works. However, there is still valid “fair use” that can be utilized on a personal level. Simply remember to be cautious about the harms that could come to a creator from publication without their permission.