Personal Computing: Deciding What Information is Fair to Use

Personal-Computing-Logo color web jan14by Reid Goldsborough

One of the catchwords on the Internet is “Information wants to be free.” This creates the impression that anything you come across online is free for the using. Not quite.

The same laws that protect intellectual property elsewhere can get you in trouble for appropriating someone else’s words, images, music, video, and so on.

As with much else about the law, the devil is in the details. But you don’t need to hire a lawyer to stay safe. A basic understanding is often all it takes. If you’re involved in a project you’re uncertain about, however, by all means consider consulting with an attorney specializing in intellectual property.

If you want to be as careful as possible, never put up on your Web site or blog and never reuse elsewhere anyone else’s work without first asking permission.

But this isn’t always possible, or necessary. The cornerstone of democracy is the free exchange of ideas, and our legal system promotes this in part through the fair use doctrine of the copyright law.

The key concept is “fair.” As a general rule, it’s more likely that you can fairly and legally reuse the work of others if your purpose is more for the common good than your own profit, if what you’re copying is factual rather than creative, if you copy a relatively small part of the work, or if your copying the work doesn’t diminish the originator’s ability to profit from it.

One fallacy is that unless the work is accompanied by a copyright symbol (a “c” within a circle), it doesn’t have copyright protection. This hasn’t been true in the U.S. since the country signed the international Berne Convention in 1989. All that’s needed for copyright protection is for the work to be created in a tangible form (rather than, for instance, existing in someone’s head).

Another copyright fallacy is that you must register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office for it to have copyright protection. Not so. Registering it, however, can make it possible to obtain greater monetary compensation and be reimbursed attorney fees if infringement is proven.

Copyright and plagiarism are often confused, related as they are. The former involves copying the form of the work of someone else, such as the words themselves. The latter involves claiming, explicitly or implicitly, someone else’s ideas as your own, even if you don’t copy the words or other forms used. Both can get you in trouble.

Typically what happens online if you’re caught reusing someone else’s work without permission and unfairly is that you’ll first receive a cease-and-desist letter or email. Once you take down the infringing material, that’s the end of it.

On the other hand, there’s a long history of copyright holders being overzealous in protecting their work, trying to squash even the most harmless fair use. If you get an unjustified cease-and-desist communication, one option is exposing the party trying to squash your freedom of expression at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse (www.chillingeffects.org).

To be fair, Web sites owners often devote considerable time and resources to creating their content, and you may be one such person or work for one such company. Commercial Web sites, for instance, leverage their online content to sell products or services or enhance brand awareness.

You can learn of others lifting content from your site and using it at their site through well-honed Google searches. Just type in as your Google search term an unusual or unique string of text at your site.

Another tool is Copyscape (www.copyscape.com), a Web service specifically designed to track Web infringement. It’s available in free and pay versions.

With the free version, you go to the Copyscape site and type in the address of a particular Web page of yours. Leveraging Google’s technology, it searches the Web for pages with words copied from yours. One of its tricks is that even if another site moved sentences around or changed some key words in a deliberate effort to be undetected, Copyscape can often still find it.

A beefed-up pay service of Copyscape called Copysentry, starting at $4.95 per month, lets you set up automatic daily or weekly searches for copyright infringement, emailing the results to you.

Copyright battles play themselves out in lots of interesting ways online. American University’s Center for Social Media has a useful listing of fair use resources (www.centerforsocialmedia.org/resources/fair_use). Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org) is a non-profit group that tries to make it easier to share your own work and build upon the work of others.

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