It used to be that only persons and companies in the publishing and advertising industries had to worry about copyrights.  However, the internet explosion and the proliferation of desktop publishing programs has vastly widened the number of people who need to know what copyright law is.  Every company now feels it has to have a web site, and everyone with a computer feels compelled to create publications that only five years ago might have come out of an IBM selectric typewriter with nothing fancier than the author's signature at the bottom of the page.

Text and Graphics

The problem arises from both text and graphics.  Computers have made it easy to copy a piece of artwork and drop it into your publication.  The same thing is true for text., and even HTML used in a web site you like.  Simply right click your mouse while the cursor is in the area of the web site you like and select "source code."  You can try it with this page - permission to view the code is granted (but nothing else).  The HTML for the section will appear, including the code for the text and the graphics.  However, it is possible for you to go further than simply viewing the code.  You have the capability of copying the section you want by blocking it, pressing the copy button, and then pasting it into a new page in your web page authoring program, or into your word processing program where you can analyze it later.

The above example is a good one for understanding the three different ways a copyright owner's work can be used (and abused) by a third party.  The first way a person "uses" another person's copyrighted material is to view it (or listen to it in audio situations).  This occurs with books, movies, posters, designs, drawings, and any other way of viewing a work that has copyright attached to it.  This is usually with the author's permission since he or she wants you to view it.  The hope is that you have already paid for the right to view the copyrighted material, or that you will buy it once you have an opportunity to view the material.

The second step is to copy the material.  In some situations, this is permitted.  If you buy a copy, you then own that copy.  But you can't make copies to sell to other people or use portions of the work you have purchased unless your use is considered to be "fair use."  "Fair use" is the name of the concept that allows people to view and copy material for limited purposes.  Commercial use is not one of them.  A good example is the copying of books on the library copy machine.  You pick up a book that has a section in it you want to study, or help you write a term paper you're working on.  You make a copy of that section for your personal study needs.  This would be a non-commercial fair use of the copyrighted material and not an infringement of the author's rights in that work.

You take the copy home and study it.  This is still fair use.  You then decide to incorporate something from the copy into whatever work you are producing (and in which you will have the copyright when it is in a fixed form).  There are two ways this can be done.  First, you can rephrase the material you have copied, or rewrite the concept or information in your own words, and place it in your work.  This is not copying.  You are assimilating the copyright owner's ideas into your own.  Ideas are never restricted by copyright.  It is only the way the copyright owner expressed those ideas that is protected. 

The second way you can use the material you copied is to copy it yourself into your work.  This is called plagiarism and can be a copyright infringement.  You must put the material in quotation marks and give credit to the author.  If the material is not lengthy, this is usually enough, although publishers routinely get copyright "permissions" from the copyright owners to quote the prior work.  What you cannot do is extensively copy the prior author's work without getting permission from the owner of the copyright.  

How much can you use without running afoul of the copyright laws?  Outright copying may bring on a lawsuit.  A case in point is a cookbook in which the author copied wholesale a number of recipes from an earlier book.  No one has the exclusive right to publish a recipe for chocolate chip cookies but you cannot copy word-for-word someone else's.  In the cookbook case, there were numerous recipes that were identical to the recipes in an earlier cookbook.  Short of outright copying, however, you should be safe if the material you create does not contain any visible "footprints" from the earlier work.  Some people talk of changing at least 25% of the original material but that may be far too small.  Remember, you don't want a lawsuit you can win: you don't want a lawsuit at all.

Law Offices of Douglas Clark Hollmann

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