October 10, 2004
Some facts about copyright from
- When is my work protected?

Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

- Do I have to register with your office to be protected?

No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”

- I've heard about a “poor man's copyright.” What is it?

The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man's copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

Interesting stuff. Great article here, that quotes another great article:
Whoever turned “copy right” into one word had to be a lawyer. We don't say “freespeechright” or “gunright” or “assemblyright” or “religionright.”

As a result, 99 percent of the public thinks that a copyright is some kind of formal legal document. They think you have to go get it, or protect it, or defend it, or preserve it, or buy it, or hire a lawyer to make sure you have it.

On the contrary, it's simply a right, like all our other rights, and it goes like this: Whoever creates something that has never been created before has the exclusive right to copy it.

It's not the person who registers it with the Library of Congress. It's the person who does it first. Just the act of creation makes the right kick in.

Unlike other rights, though, this one is transferable. You can sell your copyright, license your copyright, or give your copyright away. What's most often done is that you let a big company--say, a book publisher--use the copyright for a specific period of time, in return for money, and at the end of that period the right reverts back to you.

One other difference: This is a right with a specific term.

The Founding Fathers wanted that term to be 14 years, with an additional 14 years if the author [was] still alive. After 28 years, they figured you'd had your chance to exploit your creation, and now it belonged to the nation at large. That way we would never end up with a system of hereditary privilege, similar to the printers guilds of Renaissance England, who tied up rights to dead authors and tightly controlled what could or could not be printed and who could or could not use literary material.

In America, land of free ideas as well as free people, this would never happen, they said.

Well, it's happened. It's happened because for years now Congress has allowed it to happen. We now have an exact replica of the medieval Stationers’ Company, which controlled the English copyrights, only its names today are Disney, Bertelsmann, and AOL Time Warner. The big media companies, holding the copyrights of dead authors, have said, in effect, that Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton were wrong and that we should go back to the aristocratic system of hereditary ownership, granting copyrights in perpetuity. To effect this result, they've liberally greased the palms of Congressmen in the form of campaign contributions--and it's worked...

Additional comment from yours truly:

Here's where artists can make a difference.

I frequently hear this factoid [artist sees 10% or less of the money chaged for albums, etc.] used as justification for stealing commercial music. “Hey, the artist doesn't make jack from the record company, so I'm not really stealing from the artist at all.” Well, the artist wasn't forced into that record contract. They signed it, they agreed to it and they have to right to since they created the art. I may not like it, but I must respect the propriety of the creator, even if I think they do something stupid with their creation.

Artists can these days release their stuff under open licenses (EFF, CreativeCommons) at which point copyright doesn't have a stranglehold. The current system says, pay me first, then I'll share my art. Why not share the art first, then ask for financial support to continue creating new art from those who are willing to pay for it. Software groups are doing this (, why can't artists? Enough artists do this and trying to kill copyright laws won't matter so much anymore.

What is disturbing to me about copyright laws (here in the states) is the apparent (IANAL) ability for corporations to buy and retain copyrights from the original creators after the creators have died.

Of course, even with the ability for corporations to buy out copyrights from dead artists -- if the artists had freely released their stuff during their lifetime, there'd be little value to buying the copyright after the fact.

tags: ComputersAndTechnology