Copyright Laws

Copyright what is it, and how does it apply? First off let me start by saying this is one area that any designer or photographer should take any and every chance to learn about. There is stuff all over the internet pertaining to Copyright laws, like this post. Here is one of the problems with that, they are seldom written by copyright lawyers, again like this post. My post today is basically to highlight some misconceptions you may have heard about copyright laws and what you can and can’t do. If you have questions regarding copyrights and any legal issues that arise seek out a copyright lawyer, not an online buddy.

Copyright laws in the US are constantly being changed, looked at, reviewed, and then changed some more. It is good to know what you can and can’t do before you go too far down in the wrong direction. Below are some of the items I have found from the US copyright office and attending severe workshops related with copyright.

So what is Copyright?

According to the US Copyright office a copyright is; “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

Top 5 Common Misconceptions

Misconception 1: Everything you produce is automatically copyrighted, and thus protected under law.

Truth: This is a bit of a truth but typically viewed incorrectly. True, you create something it is immediately, without you doing anything, protected by copyright to you. BUT, unless you register the copyright with the US copyright office you’re really not entitled or able to sue for damages.

From the US Copyright Office FAQ:
Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.Notice that right there it states “if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement…” You can not sue for copyright violation without registering.

Misconception 2: If I change something 20% 30% 40% etc… I can then claim the work as mine, it’s original, and it’s copyright is mine.

Truth: My friend said this best “If I buy new tires and repaint my car that doesn’t mean I can sell it as a new make and model.” Copyright protects the creator/author from people creating works derived from their original work. A really good example of a this being an issue is the case of Shepard Fairey, the designer who created the iconic “Hope” poster during President Obama’s first campaign. Fairey quickly became popular as the image was circulated and associated with the campaign. Problem came up after the election when the AP (Associated Press) accused Fairey of using one of its photographs taken by Mannie Garcia as the basis of the artwork. It’s a good read just google “Shepard Fairey Vs. AP” you’ll get a lot of results. Eventually the case was settled with Fairey getting probation, you can see the AP’s page on this here.

Misconception 3: I found this image on Google image Search, it’s free and I can use it without any problem.

Truth: Oh where to start. This is wrong on so many, many reasons. All I can say is that each of those little thumbnails that pop-up should be considered as a potential fine. Do not use them, they are not in the Public Domain.

If you’re a photographer/designer you can use the Image search as a way to see if your image is appearing anywhere else. Also If you are looking to use a stock image you can download a thumbnail and use it in the reverse search to see if the image is being used elsewhere to see how “popular” it is.

Misconception 4: I bought an image from a stock photo site, so I don’t have to worry about violating copyright.

Truth: This isn’t so much a copyright issue as it is a usage issue. Keep in mind that if you use a stock photo you have no proof of an applicable model, property. Also is there is sensitive situations that require special releases.

Misconception 5: Fair Use, or public domain allows me to use an image.

Truth: First off Fair use does not supersede copyright law. Be very careful, do not ever hide behind the idea that you can use “fair use” defense, it generally will not work. Public Domain doesn’t mean that it is free to use, there are possible violations that could get you into trouble. It also doesn’t mean you’re able to “freely” use an item however you want.

Passing Note: Creative Commons is not the same thing as copyright protection. Don’t fall for this, copyright is a law, actionable in a Court of Law. There is no Court of Creative Commons. If you place a Creative Commons notice on something, you can not use that as a means to seek damages in a Court of Law.

Misconception 6: I shouldn’t register my copyright i’ll just have to remember to renew it every so many years.

Truth: FASLE, the idea that you shouldn’t register your Copyright because it might have to be renewed is ludicrous. By not registering your only hurting yourself.

Again according to the US Copyright Office
The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found inCircular 15aDuration of Copyright, and Circular 1Copyright Basics.