Common Myths About Copyright

Jane Smith, over at How Publishing Really Works, is doing a blog carnival on the topic of copyright in order to help spread the word about the issues in this area. I thought I might contribute my top 10 errors I hear made about copyright and intellectual property.

Myth #10: If I pay the site where I find the download, I’m not pirating.
Maybe. There are on-line stores that pay the distributors or producers of the video and music that they offer. There are others that don’t. You need to be very careful about this. Especially so, because many of the pirate sites not only charge you for material that isn’t theirs to sell, but also install malware on your computer as part of the bargain. Or steal your identity. Or . . .

Myth #9 Sending your manuscript to yourself in a sealed envelope is enough to establish your copyright.
This is just plain wrong. You have copyright as soon as you create the work, but you really can’t effectively defend it until you register with your national copyright agency. (In the US, that’s the Library of Congress Copyright Office.)

Myth #8: Anything that’s out of print is up for grabs.
Nope. Copyright extends for the life of the creator plus 70 years. And for corporate owners, it’s a similar length of time.

Myth #7: It’s hard to clear permission to use all or part of a work.
Sometimes, but not usually. There are agencies whose purpose is to help with this process for many types of work. For example, if you want to use part of a literary work originally published in the US, you should start by checking with the Copyright Clearance Center. Most of the ones you’re going to want will be there. Of course, you’re probably going to have to pay the owner for the rights you want, but the prices are usually quite reasonable. Failing that, you should contact the original publisher. Most of them have whole departments that do nothing but clear permissions.

Myth #7: Images you find on Google are available for your use.
They’re easy to steal, but they’re still under copyright, and you still need permission. And, of course, if you try to print them, the chances are pretty good that the resolution will be inadequate for your use.

Myth #6: Anything under 300 words is fair use.
Maybe, maybe not. For example, if the work is a poem or song, any use requires permission. (Other than listing the title in order to identify which work you’re talking about, or listing very short pieces in a review or piece of literary criticism.)

Myth #5: Fair use is clearly defined, and you can look it up and be safe.
Definitely not. Fair use is a defense your attorney can use if you’re sued. By then, you’re already spending more than you can afford. It’s better to clear permissions if there’s any doubt at all.

Myth #4: As long as I use proper attribution, I’m not violating copyright.
This confuses plagiarism and copyright violation. Giving other writers credit for their work may keep you out of trouble with your teachers when you’re writing a term paper, but it’s nothing like enough if you’re publishing.

Myth #3: Obscurity is a greater danger to writers than piracy. They actually gain sales from the exposure.
I know of one publisher who has sold 5,000 copies of a book that has been downloaded 250,000 times. I’m quite sure that there are other examples. Yes, some bodies of work become more popular after samples are given away. Other works sell more after free copies are available in another format (e- vs. print, usually). But this is a choice that should be left to the owners of the rights. Let them make a mistake if necessary, but recognize that this is their work, their livelihood, and their choice.

Myth #2: No real people are getting hurt in piracy. It’s all big business with tons of profit anyway.
This is so wrong, it’s funny. There are 100,000 publishers active in the US alone. Less than 100 of them (1/10 of 1%) are what anyone reasonable could call a big business. And none of them are rolling in money. And then there are the authors. Most of them are making less than minimum wage for their hours spent creating the work you want to use. Give them their due.

Myth #1: If it’s on the web, it’s free for use unless it’s behind a paywall.
Absolutely not. The law says that they have the right to control your use of it regardless. So does morality. Think:

Someone (or many people) worked hard to make it available to you in that one place. They’re giving it away in that one place for a reason. Kids may want attention, and nothing more, but they rarely create anything you’d want to use. The folks who are creating the “good stuff” deserve to be able to get what they want from you when they’re giving you that “good stuff.”

You don’t know what they want until they ask. Many will allow you to use an article with their byline and credit lines attached. Others want money, or links, or an ad beside it, or . . . . The only way to be fair is to ask.

So, those are my top ten myths. What are your favorites? And where did I err?

7 Responses to “Common Myths About Copyright”

  1. Jane Smith says:

    Marion, thank you for this: it’s a fabulous post and very informative. I hope plenty of people pay attention to it.

  2. Bravo, Marion! One of the most well-focused blogs on this matter I have ever read. I will be reposting.

  3. Michelle says:

    Myth #9 is wrong. Not all countries (such as Australia) have a copyright registrar and copyright ownership is still 100% defensible without it. The sealed posted copy is one form of proof of ownership, as are notes, emails and anything else you have to prove you are the creator of the work. All copyright registration proves is a person is the first person to lodge a copyright registration, not that they are the true owner of the work.

    • Thank you for an interesting comment. I’m very interested to find out that it is different in some countries.

      In the US, you cannot file suit without registration. Authors won’t even be able to get the envelopes, etc. admitted into evidence, should they be called upon to defend their rights.

  4. […] Over at The Profitable Publisher, Marion Gropen has written a fabulous post called Common Myths About Copyright. […]

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