A word about Copyrights


Copyrights are an important issue for any artist, writer or poet.  This is true, unfortunately, because they are so often infringed upon.  Over the years I’ve seen my own work used with permission and in a few cases passed off as the work of someone else, that’s theft.  Recently, a friend had some of her work used without permission.   The people who did so didn’t intend any harm, it apparently just never occurred to them to ask.   So, what is a copyright, why is it important and how do you know if something is copyrighted?

What is a copyright?

The short answer is, its the right of ownership to any original work of art, literature, music, etc.  In other words, if you made it, its yours… if you didn’t make it, its not yours unless you buy it.  A copyright gives the owner the following rights:

  • the right to make copies of their work
  • the right to distribute copies of their work
  • the right to perform their work publicly (such as plays and music)
  • the right to display their work publicly
  • the right to make derivative works

Only the person who owns the copyrights to something, or those the owner gives permission to, can do any of those things.  In other words, you can’t just grab a graphic off someone’s web site and use it on your own because you wanted, you have to get permission.  You cannot reprint poems, short stories, etc. without permission.   Even giving credit doesn’t make it okay, it still using something without permission.  If you see something you want to use, ask whoever created it for permission.

What can be copyrighted?

  • Literary works
  • Music and lyrics
  • Dramatic works and music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Photographs, graphics, paintings and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Video games and computer software
  • Audio recordings
  • Architectural works

Note, in order to be copyright protected, it must be in a tangible form.  Making up a poem and reciting it doesn’t get you a copyright; but the minute you write that poem down on paper or a blog or someplace, you have the copyright (assuming the poem was original).

When is something copyrighted?

When you create an original work in tangible form, it is automatically copyrighted as soon as you create it.  Draw a sketch, paint a painting, write a poem down, or write a short story; assuming they are original, then they’re automatically copyrighted when you created them.  You can register your copyright for additional protection, but it is not necessary.  Here is the link for the U. S. Copyright Office.

How long does a copyright last?

  • For original works created after 1977, copyright lasts for the life of author/creator + 70 years from the author’s death for his/her heirs.
  • For “works made for hire” corporate works and anonymous works created after 1977, copyright can last from 95-120 years from publication.

Why are copyrights important?

What’s all the fuss about, its just a picture, right?  I’ve had this said to me and its frustrating.  People seem to forget that artists and writers and poets and musicians make their living from what they create.  When you take it without permission, you’re stealing from them and affecting their ability to earn a living.   Most of us are not rich and probably never will be, we struggle to pay our bills, save up for retirement, go on vacation, etc. just like other people.  Creating things can be time consuming; what may seem like a simple graphic to you might have taken someone hours or days to create.  Think about that, let’s say someone needed 16 hrs to create something, that’s 2 days of work.  How much do you make an hour?   How much is your time worth?  Suppose you went into work for 2 days and someone else got your paycheck for those two days?  That’s what you’re taking from an artist when you use their work without permission, or worse, redistribute it to others for free.

What about Fair Use?

Fair use is a limitation on copyright that allows other to use some of a copyrighted material without permission.  Exactly what is and isn’t allowed under fair use is probably best explained by a lawyer, which I am not.   In a word, its can be kind of complicated.  What I will say about it is this.  First, if you assume fair use will protect you, or gives you automatic permission to use all or even some of a copyrighted work, you are putting yourself on risky ground.  It is always better to simply ask for permission than to rely on fair use for protection.  That is especially true if you happen to be a fan of the artist or author; it puts you on better terms with them and it also shows respect for them.  Many artists and authors are happy to allow some of their art to be used elsewhere if asked, though they’ll probably want to insure they are also properly credited (always give authors and artist credit for their work, never remove an artist signature from their artwork).

For most people, Fair Use won’t really be a legitimate concern.  Fair use is most often employed by journalist, researchers, educators, and sometimes other authors and artists.  Taking someone’s art just because you want to pretty up your web page or fan page is likely to get you a DCMA letter and the disapproval of the artist (its also unlikely they’d give you permission to use anything in the future, so again, just ask first).

Watermarks & Metadata OR Why is all my art “tattooed”?

Watermarks are a second image embedded in another image so that they are only faintly visible.  Metadata is information stored withing a digital image or file that contains important information about it.  For example, metadata may contain the name of the art piece, the name of the artist, and information on how to contact the artist.  My own images include a link back to my web site in the metadata.  You should never remove the metadata from someone’s art images, although some sites make this easy (Photobucket offers an option to strip all meta data from images, something I wish they wouldn’t do).

A watermark is another way of including proof of copyright in an image.  All my images are heavily watermarked with my name and the year of copyright.  This is done by adding the watermark as an image in a paint program, reducing the opacity to between 2% and 5%, and then merging the layers.  Although one person thought they were some sort of “tattoo”, they are actually to discourage theft because they are virtually impossible to completely remove.  The downside is that it also permanently mares the image, so the art you see here on my site is never quite a nice as the original. Also, the originals of all my artwork are much higher resolution than what I display on my site, again something done because of theft.   If I sell artwork, the buyer gets a copy of the original, hi-resolution, unmarked image.

So pop quiz.

Q:  When should you assume something is copyrighted?

A:  Always

Q:  What should you do if you want to use copyrighted material?

A:  Ask permission

Its really that simple folks, and its the honest thing to do.

Keep being creative (and original)!

The merit of originality is not novelty, it is sincerity. — Thomas Carlyle


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