Legal Ramifications – Copyright Law – I

In the last Legal Ramifications, we gave an overview of intellectual property (“IP”) law and said that bloggers will have to contend with two of the three main parts of IP – namely, copyrights and trademarks (patent law will rarely if ever effect a blog).

Let’s take a closer look at copyright law.

Copyright has a long history in law, in Anglo/American law going back at least as far as the Statute of Anne in 1710 in England which first gave the right to stop copying to authors.

When the United States constitution came into effect at the end of that century, the Federal government of the United States was given the right by the constitution to grant authors limited rights in their creations in other to encourage the creation of creative works.

Over the past 200 years or so,  the length of time that all us authors has been given in the US  has been extended on many occasions from an a term that only ran for 14 years, to a term today that now lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.  Copyright term can be a very complicated issue as it will depend on when the work in question was created and what kind of work it is.  For our purposes, however, you can bank on the fact that any work you create today will be subject to your copyright for a term of your life plus 70 years.  Seems like a long time, doesn’t it.

Truthfully, most of us could probably do with a shorter term.  I mean, do you think about the income of your heirs from your writings perhaps 100 years from now!  Probably not.  But if you were, say an author like Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, you might.  The truth is, though, that this long copyright term is the result of lobby by media companies like Time Warner and Disney, who wanted to make sure that there films and licensing characters had as long a life as possible.  We all benefit from the long term in some sense in that anything any of us create will be protected for a long, long time.

On the other hand, there is an argument that keeping things under copyright for long periods of time prevents others from using them and detracts from the general ability of the public to use pre-existing works to create new works.  This term is not an international standard though and there is little chance that it will ever be rolled back.  As a matter of public policy, we should probably make sure that it is not lengthened any further.

Any work that is not under copyright is said to be in the public domain (or “PD”).  If a work is in the public domain, it is free for anyone to copy and to use to their heart’s content.  Works can be dedicated to the public domain when they are created, that is, the author of the work can simply declare that the work is in the public domain and that he, she or it (that’s right, corporations and other entities can own copyrights – more on that later) has no intention of exercising the right to prevent copying.

The other way for works to fall into the public domain is for the copyright term to expire, or, under some of the older copyright laws, for the author of the work do have failed to take some action needed to maintain copyright.

For example, under an old law in the US, the owner was required to use a copyright notice when the work was published.  This is no longer true under our newer laws and it is much harder to inject a work into the public domain by accident or through negligence than it used to be.

Next on Legal Ramifications – what kind of works are subject to copyright – and what is this thing called “Fair Use?”

  2 comments for “Legal Ramifications – Copyright Law – I

  1. December 29, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Nils,
    So glad to see someone tackle this tough subject. There are so many rules and regulations that sometimes we just don’t have any idea where to begin. I’m looking forward to the following posts. Thanks for sharing.
    Deb :)

  2. December 30, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks Deb, IP can seem very complicated from the outside, so I am going slow here in the beginning so that we call have a sound basis for discussing some of the more weighty issues in the months to come.

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