Copyrights in Cyberspace

by Steve Elias Copyright Nolo Press 1998





  This article originally appeared in the Nolo News. If you wish to post it
online or otherwise distribute it, first read _Nolo's copyright policy._  

  + How Copyright works while browsing on an electronic bulletin board: you
come across an interesting article on dog training. Thinking it might be of
interest to the members of your dog owners' club, you download it, print it
out and reprint it in the next issue of your club's newsletter.

 Congratulations -- you've probably just violated federal law.

 Don't worry, you won't be hauled off to the federal pen. The law you ran
afoul of is copyright law, which gives authors, composers and others who
create works of expression certain rights over their creations.

 You would probably think about copyright rules if you wanted to republish a
chapter of a book, a play or a song you liked. But they're easy to overlook
when you're dealing with electronic media. These bits of information fly
around so rapidly and can be reproduced so easily that it's hard to remember
that someone out there probably owns the right to determine when and how
copies are made and used.

 All works of original expression have at least one thing in common: they are
protected by copyright as soon as they are created and fixed in a tangible
medium. For the most part, once an expression is entered into a computer in a
form that can be read on screen or routed to a printer, it is considered fixed
in a tangible medium, even if it is never printed out or saved to a disk. A
copyright notice -- that little  followed by the year and the author's name
-- is not required, but is recommended to remind people that the author claims
a copyright.

 The author of the expression owns the copyright, unless there has been a
formal written transfer of that ownership or the expression is created as a
work for hire or paid for by an employer. So a person who enters an expression
into a computer for other people to see usually owns the copyright on that
expression.

 What does owning a copyright on an expression mean? Simply, that no one else
can copy, distribute, display or adapt that expression without the copyright
owner's consent. This consent may be given for free, for a fee or on the
condition that an appropriate attribution be given. It is always a good idea,
if you send material into cyberspace, to explicitly state the conditions for
its use and reproduction.

 As a starting point, therefore, you can assume that you control the right to
use any expressions that you author and put online. The important corollary is
that any expressions you find online are probably controlled by someone else
and shouldn't be used without permission. 

-=How Copyright Works=-

 Copyright protects expression, not ideas or facts. For instance, information
in a telephone book or a weather summary can be freely used. On the other
hand, the expression used in an essay on telephones or a creative explanation
of weather systems is protected by copyright even though the underlying data
and ideas aren't.

 Copyright law doesn't mean that you can never quote something interesting
that you find online. The "fair use" rule allows you to use a small portion of
an expression to comment on it or for an educational purpose. But if you want
to use the expression for commercial gain, the fair use exception probably
won't apply unless the portion you use is extremely small in relation to the
entire expression.

 It's extremely difficult to apply the fair use rule to new forms of
expression such as the discussions that take place in "cyberspace" -- for
example, on Internet "newsgroups" or the conferences on online services such
as America Online and CompuServe. A hundred people may each contribute a few
lines to a discussion. If you want to use a big chunk of the conversation,
must you get every contributor's permission? Theoretically, yes, because each
contributor owns copyright in his or her words. However, since none of the
contributions has any significant commercial value by itself, it's hard to see
where the copyright owners would be harmed if the entire conversation were
used without their individual permissions. Nevertheless, people whose words
are used without their permission may be angry about it. It is always better
to ask.
 
One last thing. Copyright is not the only law to be concerned about when
launching words onto the information highway. You should also avoid: 
  + invading a person's privacy 
  + falsely accusing someone of committing an immoral or illegal act, and 
  + using a trademark or service mark that is already being used by someone else. 


                       -==Copyrights in Cyberspace==-
                 by Steve Elias Copyright  Nolo Press 1998 

 
 


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