Magazine article Information Today

Fun with Copyright

Magazine article Information Today

Fun with Copyright

Article excerpt

Copyright law can be pretty complicated. A friend of mine who is writing his first book recently asked me whether he should register the book with the U.S. Copyright Office before it is completed. It took me several resources and quite a bit of time to figure out the answer to his question. (Answer: As copyright exists from the moment of creation, registration is probably not necessary until the book is completed ... probably.) Gathering this information still took me awhile, and I work in a 450,000-volume academic law library with access to several commercial legal information databases.

There are several reasons for this complexity, but it mainly boils down to the need for copyright law to be flexible in applying to widely different situations and its need to balance competing public interests. For example, the Fair Use Doctrine statute is comparatively short; it simply outlines four factors that must be evaluated to determine if a use is fair. However, applying those factors to every unique potential fair use of copyright material is where the challenge comes in. Courts continue to struggle with their decisions, which can limit the guidance that they give to users of copyrighted works.

Understanding Fair Use

A few innovative tools and resources have emerged to help content users understand fair use and other copyright issues a bit better. Some are fairly new; others have been around awhile. Although they may not answer all of the copyright questions, they can help. And a couple of them even provide a bit of humor. A threshold question for new users of existing works is often whether the original work is even copyrighted. The recent 20-year extension of the term of a copyright, coupled with rules that have changed several times during the last 100 years (yes, copyrights could last that long) have made this a difficult question to answer. The orphan works issue, currently the subject of proposed legislation in Congress, is driven by this question.

The American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy has devised a handy "digital slider" that outlines what a user should look for in works of various ages. Available online at, it outlines the copyright status of materials published at different times and under different circumstances. First determine when it was published. Then ask was it published with a (c) notice? Was the copyright renewed? Was it published in the U.S.? If all these questions are answered with a "no," then the material is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. If the answer is "maybe," then it is copyrighted. There is also a mouseover for additional information on fair use and other options.

Stodgy Academics

Who knew that the self-proclaimed "stodgy academics" could write a comic book about fair use? The Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain is a bit more entertaining with its Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain, a 70-page illustrated graphic novel on copyright issues and fair use. Illustrated with a mix of hand-drawn artwork and collages of pop culture images, the book uses the fictional tale of a documentary filmmaker to illustrate how fair use can be used to incorporate copyrighted content into new works. …

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