Week 7: Copyright

The material covered this week is the reason i am not a lawyer.  I attempted to sum up most of the information to the best of my understanding in the following review.  I am not entirely sure if i accurately captured the information because my brain hurts. 


Determining whether information is protected under copyright can be a rather complicated process.  I always assumed materials I would want access to where already in the public domain, since I am a fan of political history.  However, learning that Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream” speech is copyrighted made me have to rethink that assumption.  That is just one example that proves that even if a person thinks they have cleared the copyright protection hurdle, they may have to think again. 

According to the Federal Depository Libraries website, all Federal Government information contained in Public libraries is free for public use, but just because that information is freely accessible at a library, does not mean it is free to be distributed.  Using materials from the LOC, for example, is not always simple since the LOC does not own all copyrights to materials within its possession.  Although, that is a somewhat recent phenomenon.  I believe most of the information I would seek to use in making my own webpage has been produced by government employees and is, therefore, considered to be part of the public domain. 

Another delicate matter pertains to information contained within materials, like books.  This information can be copyrighted even though the book itself is no longer subject to copyright protection.  Determining the appropriate category copyrighted material is housed in is in and of itself, tricky.  Not to mention changing laws that further complicate the process. 

It is always interesting how depending on the changes in law, dates are crucial to recognize.  For example, copyright used to only be 14 years (the law instituted in 1783) and now lasts the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years after the author’s death.  Here is how the bar has continued to move:

  • The law changed in 1831, extending copyright protection for 28 years, on print illustrations, doubling the previous laws 14-year restriction.  A similar law was enacted in 1909, and applied to books.
  • In 1978, a law went into effect extending copyright for the lifetime of the author, plus 50 years.
  • In 1998, 20 years were added to the copyright protection clause of 1978, to make the new law last the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years (as mentioned above).  Let’s see what happens in 2018!

How the cutoff dates are analyzed from a legal perspective is a conundrum to me due to all the extensions, exceptions, and different editions of works that have occurred along the way.  Thank goodness my interests are strictly domestic because foreign materials are a whole new ball game with troubles of their own depending on when treaties were signed.  I digress, back to my original train of thought.  How was it determined that all works published before 1923 would become public domain?  The law changed and required registration between 1923 and 1963 for copyright.  Then in 1964 onward everything was automatically renewed.  Everything published before 1923 is free to use.  Everything published after 1922 requires attention to how the copyright laws are applicable.  I really like the table in the reading because I was really confused and the table breaks it down in a simple to understand format. 

Just because material was never published, does not mean it is not protected by copyright.  In fact, unpublished works seem to pose an even greater risk and are much more difficult to sort through in terms of copyright.  I always thought it would be cool to find something unpublished, like a discovery (since there are no more lands left to discover on earth).  My bubble has been busted.

Owning original material (as a purchaser) does not guarantee the owner of the original version the rights to display that version publicly.  It does give the owner of the original version an advantage in the sense that the value of owning an original version is high. One, and arguably the most important intention of copyright is the generation of revenue for the author or producer of a work.  Currently, if a book is out of print the book becomes a rare commodity and the value of that book rises significantly.  If an out of print book is published online and becomes freely accessible, the value of the book becomes worthless.  

Making highly valued material freely accessible defeats the purpose because the value plummets when the material becomes easily accessible to the public (of course there will always be collectors).  It is understandable that the creator or even purchaser of such highly valued material would be proprietary of such information and materials.  That is why a person who is on the brink of genius does not share an idea, as an idea is not subject to copyright protection.  Why would someone share their idea with anyone with the means to steal that idea and make it their own?  Any reasonable person would be proprietary of that idea until it is produced or published and copyright can be applied to that material.  It is as much to claim ownership of that material so the posterity remembers the creator, as it is to receive credit and compensation for all the hard work put into making the product. 

On the flip side of that coin, being a student of politics, and understanding the all- consuming desire for profit oftentimes undermines ethical practices, I am glad to know fair use is there to save the day and allow for the sharing of certain pieces of information (contained in the large body of new work) that would otherwise be sealed up and stored away in a vault to collect dust, effectively rendering the people ignorant.  Fair use walks a fine line that pays respect to the original authors of works (giving credit where credit is due), and disseminating information for purposes of educating the people and ensuring the free flow of knowledge. 

Even though the web poses numerous problems when it comes to copyright, due to the ease of reproducing materials, it is relatively easy to make the appropriate adjustments to any material that might raise a red flag (as was noted in the text for this week reading assignment) and avoid a lawsuit.  That caveat made me feel more comfortable.  Though I will add, that in no way means obtaining permission is not necessary.  As the text makes mention of; when trying to make contact for permission: Document, document, document!

As copyright laws continue to evolve to adapt to the ever-changing digital era, it is crucial that citizens educate themselves and stay informed to ensure they are following the rule of the law and avoiding unnecessary legal battles.   At the same time, citizens must be ever mindful of the delicate balance between what is good for the people as a whole, and what is good individual whose hard work and effort produced the work.  I certainly would not suggest using the cliché: “It is better to beg for forgiveness that ask for permission,” here.  Following this general rule of thumb – borrow, do not steal – should keep a person safe from violating copyright laws.   

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