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Are you allowed to grab that photo from Google Image Search and use it on your blog? Or look at it from the other angle. What if you uploaded an image and someone else started using it without your permission? That’s what copyright boils down to: permission. It’s a confusing subject, yes, but it’s important that you wrap your head around it.
Breaking copyright law is wrong on a moral level. If you haven’t been given permission to use something, you shouldn’t use it. Sometimes you might get away with it, but if you steal from the wrong person (or company) you could end up in a lot of legal trouble. Similarly, what can you do when someone steals from you?
International Copyright Law
Depending on the country, copyright laws and protections over intellectual property can vary at the fundamental level, which is why copyrights have been such a controversial topic in the digital age. It’s one thing to declare the legality of copyright grey areas when you’re overseas, but even when illegal, enforcement becomes another matter.
In other words, there is no “international copyright” that applies all around the world. There is, however, the World Intellectual Property Organization which is part of the United Nations. Over 180 countries have come together to outline several treaties that set a bare minimum on the protections offered to content creators.
For copyright law in the United States, the primary resource is the United States Copyright Office. There you can search through copyright records, register your own copyright, keep up with proposed legislation and congressional testimonies, but most importantly, there’s an entire section dedicated to laws, regulations, and frequently asked questions.
For those outside of the US, copyright laws must still be explored on a per-country basis. CopyrightUser is great for wrapping your head around UK copyrights. The Arts Law Center of Australia has an informative sheet on Australian copyright. Rights Direct also has a good overview of basic copyright regulations in Europe.
For a basic but thorough breakdown of copyrights in general, see What Is Copyright. Any work that’s no longer protected by copyright is considered to be public domain.
Copyrights For Art, Music, and Literature
A lot of copyright talk comes in the context of consumer media and digital piracy. Following in the footsteps of Napster, Kazaa, and Limewire, platforms like BitTorrent have made it incredibly easy to share files with near-anonymous secrecy. Companies hate it so much that we now have digital rights management (DRM) locks on games, movies, ebooks, and more.
There are many copyright myths related to online digital infringement, which just goes to show how misunderstood it all really is. Fortunately, there are a few sites that can help clear it up.
Artists Rights Society has a clean overview for artists in the US. Global Copyright Office explains the difference between implicit copyrights and registering copyrights for music and arts. As far as literature is concerned, you’ll want to read What Is Plagiarism, which is a great resource for defining and avoiding plagiarism.
On the flipside, we have movements like Creative Commons which takes copyrighting in a different direction — away from strict rights management and towards open use by the public with fewer restrictions.
Copyrights For Software
Software creators also have to deal with issues of copyright. Ever heard of open source software? Creators can dictate the rules of usage and distribution for the software they create. When software is open sourced, the creator retains the copyright but simply allows others to use and modify said software with fewer limitations than proprietary software.
If you’re a software creator, you should think about creating your own software license agreement. Or if you’d rather go the open source route, consider choosing one of the many open source software licenses out there.
Software licenses can be confusing, though. There’s a lot of legalese involved and it can be hard to parse what you can and cannot do under a certain license. Fortunately, you can go to TLDR Legal to view summaries of the most popular software licenses.
There’s a reason why so many companies employ copyright lawyers — it’s just too much information to digest unless you study it through and through. That being said, if you’re involved in any sort of creative work, you should learn the basics of it all, and these resources will help you do that.
Do you know of any other online resources that help explain the complexities of copyright law? Have you ever run into copyright issues, either as an offender or someone being offended? If so, how was it resolved? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!