I’ve been part of a discussion on Facebook in which someone ghost-wrote something for a client, then found it appearing under someone else’s name entirely without the client’s consent. She has taken action and stuff is happening, because she stood her ground.
A number of people think they can use items that are already on the Web because it’s in the public domain, right?
Er…wrong. Copyright isn’t consistent around the world but one thing you can’t do is just help yourself.
UK and Europe
If you’re in the UK, you’re covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act ˚of 1988. This means that if you create something it’s yours. This blog post is mine, and as a jobbing freelance anything I write is mine by default unless I sign the rights over, even if someone pays for it.
People sometimes doubt this is correct but it is; consider wedding photographers, whose pics you are not allowed to produce because they are protected by copyright even when you paid the snapper hundreds.
The EU is slightly different as every country has a variation on the same laws; ultimately they all date back to the Berne Convention. All of this stuff predates the Web, of course, and presumably there will some day need to be some legislation that actually takes account of electronic publication. Someone out there has made two of my books available electronically; I don’t know where they are so it’s tricky to do anything about it.
Made in America
One complication that follows from the Web is that different laws apply in different regions. There is no reason, for example, to expect any European laws to apply on another continent. Lawyers will be able to unpick the American copyright laws; my layman’s understanding is that the bit that applies to writers is that until 1989 it was important to assert rights, in other words to put a (c) notice at the end. This didn’t apply in the UK. It can still be useful to do it in the US although it’s not mandatory (I am grateful to Steve Addison for correcting the first version of this post, which incorrectly stated that the ruling was still current – here is a Wikipedia entry on the subject).
This can still be important. I once had someone’s rights queried in a book I co-wrote because we’d credited them rather than their company as co-copyright-holders. The US lawyers thought this quite serious and pointed to the copyright assertion; I pointed out that the book was published in Europe rather than America and they were surprised to learn that copyright was automatic (this happened two years ago and I have left the reference in, even though the copyright assertion is optional in the US as per the paragraph above). After that, the issue went away.
It’s also possible that American bloggers etc. will see your work and copy part of it, not realising it’s in copyright because in their territory they may think it would need a copyright assertion at the end.
Fair use, common sense
In British law there is no such thing as “fair use”, which confuses people. I’ve known people who’ve had paragraphs lifted and attributed to them without their knowledge and when they’ve objected a British person has cited “fair use” – it doesn’t actually exist over here, it’s an American construct that applies to American law.
I also happen to think it’s a rather good one. It’s insane that a decade or so ago when I wrote “This Is Social Media” I had to clear every quote and reference with everyone, when I was only using a few sentences.This is where in my mind it all gets watered down a little; the strict letter of the law doesn’t allow for any repetition over here and that just doesn’t reflect the way communication happens at the moment (technically quoting a Tweet is a breach of copyright; you begin to see how unworkable this would be if we tried to apply it rigorously?)
So to my mind there’s an element of common sense to be taken into account. By all means use paragraphs or as much as instinct tells you in a longer piece, attribute and link where appropriate and someone would have to be very petty-minded to take exception.
Lift an entire piece wholesale as happened to my colleague and you can expect trouble. At the very least, when it becomes common knowledge, your reputation will be shot to pieces.
Oh, and if you want to lift my entire book and put it online, you’re technically a thief. However, anyone who takes a copy of an almost-ten-year-old book on social media and expects to build a business using it is technically a mug as well, so whatever…
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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer – before assuming any specific element of the above is correct, get proper legal advice if your career depends on it.