Sunday, April 13, 2008

Copyright ignorance

I recently ran into the most infuriating example of people's ignorance regarding copyright laws and fair use.

I belong to several Yahoo! groups for vintage dolls (doll collecting and doll repair being one of my hobbies). In one of them, someone was talking about posting scans of the pictures in a doll book, as reference for the other members. She asked if everyone else thought it was okay, since she wasn't reproducing the pages for profit, and another member gave her the go-ahead.

Maybe I care too much about copyright infringement, but it seems to me that most people on the Internet don't understand copyright law, so I felt it my duty to speak up. I explained that profit is not the only determining factor in determining copyright infringement, and summarized the rules of fair use. I then asked for more information on the book, and offered to research the current copyright status for them. I also advised that they not post the scans if they were available to the Internet at large, but make the information accessible only to members of the group (which has all of 7 people in it right now).

To my utter shock and dismay, the responses I received varied from sheer ignorance to outright hostility toward me for speaking up. The moderator wrote to me directly and asked me not to discuss copyright issues because it would deter other members from uploading "research materials" (read: potentially illegal reproductions).

The other members' reactions represent almost every facet of copyright ignorance found on the Internet:

MYTH #1: Only published works are copyrighted.

"We are not speaking of a published work here - we are dealing with COPIES of old catalog pages similar to a Sears catalog..."

MYTH #2: Copyrighted works have to make some kind of statement to the effect in order to be protected.

MYTH #3: That out-of-print works are no longer protected.

"No where [sic] in this bound copy of the catalogues is there anything stated about copywrite [sic] --only thing ever noted is that copies are available from the Mme Alexander Company---I understand the concerns, certainly, but since one can't readily purchase this out of print edition of the reprints, does it seem as if we are infringing on anyone, save perhaps Madame Alexander, who nowhere states, in this catalogue, that copies may not be reprinted?"

MYTH #4: You have to make a profit in order for it to be copyright infringement.

MYTH #5: The reproduction has to actually be printed (on paper) in order to be copyright infringement.

"I sincerely think that because we have no intention of printing or distributing or offering for sale anything from this publication... " (stating why she thought it wouldn't be copyright infringement)

MYTH #6: Copyright law doesn't apply to me/If I don't understand it, I'm not liable.

"There is the teeny tiny copyright symbol at the top left of the "A" of Alexander Doll Company, Inc. which simply means (to me) that the name is copyrighted."

Of course, all of these myths are just that — myths:

1) Catalogs CAN be protected by copyright (any intellectual work can — and is automatically, these days)

2) Works ARE protected whether or not they make a statement to that effect,

3) Out-of-print works DO retain their copyright protection for the entire term,

4 and 5) Reproductions do NOT have to be printed on paper or generate profit in order to be considered copyright infringement, and

6) Stupidity is NOT a defense.

Now remember that I was simply making the suggestion that they make sure that the scans aren't available to anyone but group members (which, as it turned out, they aren't). I even offered my own time and effort to research the book's copyright status, yet the group responded with thinly veiled hostility — the moderator even deleted my message and all related posts from the forum!

This has been an eye-opener to me. I've always preferred to think that much of the copyright infringement on the Web is due to a lack of education and understanding of copyright law, but maybe that is too generous. Because it certainly seems that I've run into 6 people who would prefer to look the other way.


Anonymous said...

There has been an enormous amount of chatter about copyright in the knitting world lately. My favorite take on that? This blog post over at Fleegle's blog. I thought it was just hilarious. Even if it does mean I need to rewrite my Will. (grin)

Katharine Swan said...


Thanks for visiting my blog!

That blog post is funny, but I can't help but think Fleegle (and some of the commenters) are kind of missing the point of copyright law.

Or maybe I just lack a sense of humor on that subject. ;o)

Anonymous said...

Well, you haven't had the chance to see the virulent posts about knitting-pattern copyright on some of the knitting forums. Most people are trying to comply but the discussions about what to do with a pattern from a library book, or one you bought from a designer or whatever get rather heated because it IS confusing. It's not as clear-cut as "don't steal," and Fleegle mentions that in the second half of her post--about how copyright for some things--especially electronic things-- just doesn't make sense.

Katharine Swan said...

It's not as clear-cut as "don't steal," and Fleegle mentions that in the second half of her post--about how copyright for some things--especially electronic things-- just doesn't make sense.

I don't agree that statement at all. If I write an article or a book, it is my creation and my intellectual property, regardless of whether it is printed matter or an electronic file. Either way, I have the right to control how it is copied and distributed.

Fleegle makes a comment about how a library book can be legally borrowed from friends, but an electronic file can't. This actually does make sense once you understand that lending a physical book to a friend just transfers your copy -- a single copy that has already been bought and paid for -- to someone else. On the other hand, if you "lend" an ebook to a friend, you actually copy the file -- so now you EACH have a copy. Since copyright law protects the author by ensuring that the work is not copied without permission, it makes sense that ebooks shouldn't be shared.

Personally, I think it is pretty clear cut. Tell your knitting friends where to buy the pattern you're recommending, or what book or magazine to borrow from the library. Then let them get it on their own. It's that simple.


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