Exploring the Web, Machete In Hand

Copyright Infringement:It's happening on the net ... by Sal Towse

Did you send the "Wear sunscreen" commencement speech to your chums? Did you e-mail Mary Schmich's "Vonnegut? Schmich? Who can tell in cyberspace?" follow-up column as well?Was that collection of computer haiku so funny that you promptly sent it to every nerd you knew? Have you ever shared a Far Side cartoon with your friends?

Do you realize such "sharing" is copyright infringement -- that means illegal -- and a major peeve of the people who create the works you enjoy? Here's a case in point.

Those Words Look Familiar

"I am glad that I am not as judgmental as all those censorious, self-righteous people around me."

An unattributed quote in a sig file in the Usenet newsgroup misc.writing caught Jack Mingo's attention. The aphorism was from a book Jack Mingo and Brad Bunnin had co-authored: I Am My Own Best Casual Acquaintance and Other Cosmic Half-Firmations by Shanti Goldstein (Contemporary Books, c1993).

Mingo and I were friends, and we both posted to misc.writing. He sent me e-mail asking whether I thought the poster knew Mingo was at least half of Shanti. What to do? Mingo knew the poster and sent a joking e-mail: "Hey! Steal from 'Shanti Goldstein' and don't give credit, willyou! I'll have you know that half of her is a literary lawyer [Brad Bunnin], and the other half keeps tabs on m.w."

The poster answered that he'd found the unattributed humor in a post to sci.med.nursing. As a favor, I made a quick scout throughsci.med.nursing and sent a copy of the post to Mingo.To Mingo's dismay the post contained almost half the content of Shanti Goldstein's small book. Further sleuthing showed the same subset of maxims was posted in a number of other newsgroups and was spreading through e-mail. When Mingo told posters the Shanti work was under copyright, they were defensive: "I am sorry you were ripped off - but please dont call me a plagerist. Or even suggest I infringed your copyright - I didnt. There was no copyright notice or even authorship noted there." [sic]

Some folks, even in misc.writing, a newsgroup for writers, wondered why Mingo was so bothered. The Net has made copyright infringement so easy and it's everywhere. Why buck the tide?

Please Don't Use Our Stuff

We asked a college student to remove the Shanti humor from his site. He gave a response we were tired of hearing: Unfortunately the copy that I received (and no I do not know where I received it from) did not contain copyright notice, and therefore I had no way of knowing that it was copyrighted material. I do respect your problem and situation, but I am not the source ofyour problem, and do not deserve your slander.

Copyright Confusion

If a work doesn't include author information and/or has no copyright notice, are you free to use it?

No! Ever since the United States adopted the Berne Copyright Convention in 1988, a work doesn't need a copyright notice, and has copyright protection as soon as it is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," a computer's memory, for example. Once "fixed," the work is copyrighted, even if the creator neither registers the copyright nor appends a copyright notice.

What can be copyrighted? The contents of a Web site are copyrighted, as is any written work(including e-mail and Usenet posts), visual work, music, other sound files, movies and other creations. Assume you may need permission from the copyright holder to use or share any creative work.

But is it still under copyright? How long does copyright protection last? With the latest changes in copyright law, the copyright for works created after 1977 lasts for the life of theauthor plus 70 years. If there are multiple authors, the copyright lasts until 70 years after thedeath of the last surviving author.

If the work is a work for hire (done for an employer or specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is longer.

If the work was created, but not published, before January 1, 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years or until December 31, 2002, whichever is longer. For works copyrighted before January 1, 1978, and whose copyright was still valid on that date, the copyright extends for ninety-five years from the date of the original copyright.

Simple isn't it? Wait. There's more! If an unpublished work created before 1978 was published before December 31, 2002, the copyright protection will be extended until December 31, 2047.

Confusing? Lolly Gasaway has put together a simple chart showing when works enter the public domain, i.e. are no longer under copyright. Here's the simple version: The copyrights for all works published in the United States before 1923 have expired. Assume you need the copyright holder's permission to use anything created or published since 1923.

Putting someone else's copyrighted work on your Web site without permission, posting it to a newsgroup, or e-mailing it to friends wrenches control of the work from the copyright holder.Even if you don't profit, you're guilty of intellectual property theft.

But Is It Infringement?

Many people believe copyright infringement occurs only if the culprit profits, but copyright infringement is copyright infringement no matter what the financial arrangements involved. Mingo's take on the "but I never profited" defense?

Interesting, but profoundly uninformed. Sort of like saying that if I went to your house and took your belongings but then gave them all away, it wouldn't really be theft because I didn't directly profit. Fun idea: Shall we try it in a court of law?

Plagiarism, another form of theft, is also rampant on the Net because it is so easy to lift information off the Web and Usenet and claim it as your own. Sometimes the plagiarism is unintended. A person is given an article for their Web site and don't realize that the writer plaigiarised the article. Be careful your information sources aren't themselves infringing copyright or plagiarizing.

Dave Barry

Let's say a guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine. He asks her out to a movie; she accepts; they have a pretty good time[...]

A post to misc.writing contained a lengthy excerpt from Dave Barry's Complete Guide To Guys (New York: Random. (c)1995 by Dave Barry). The post never mentioned Barry, and some assumed the poster was the author. After I snarled that he'd infringed Barry's copyright, he replied:Seriously, the extract in question was emailed to me recently. I found it apt and within context to post. The fact it was swiped in the first place was unbeknownst to moi.

"How could he have known it was copyrighted?" you ask. Brad Bunnin (the "oldstein" of"Shanti Goldstein"), author of The Writer's Legal Companion (Harper-Collins. 3d ed. c1998), answers: If it looks good enough to copy, it probably belongs to someone else. So do a search, friends,and see if you can find out who that someone is, before blithely assuming it's free for all. And when you find out, don't let your inner sociopath convince you that it's OK to steal that good stuff. Get permission to use it.

What should you do with that Dave Barry gem you want to share? "He wouldn't mind," you think. "The exposure helps his book sales."

When I asked Barry, he answered "I _hate the way people abuse copyrights on the 'net. This stuff is _really hard to stop."

Including the author's name and copyright notice is marginally better than having no attributions or claiming the work as your own, but you're violating copyright unless the copyright holder has given permission. What can you do instead? Provide the URL for the Barry archives at the Miami Herald.

Scott Adams, Gary Larson

Copyright infringement of Scott Adams's written humor and Dilbert cartoons gives Adams the dubious honor of being another of the most "popular" writers on the Net. Like Barry, Adamsand his lawyers actively protect his copyrights. I asked Adams what to do about a humorous e-mail titled "Plagiarized Dilbert." Should I send a copyright rant to my correspondent? Did he want a copy of the e-mail? Adams replied "I appreciate any hand-slapping you can give the offenders, or just forward to me and I'll have the lawyers handle it. This is an ongoing thing for us."

Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons are ripped off, too. Larson's open letter to Usenet denizens beginsI'm walking a fine line here. On the one hand, I confess to finding it quite flattering that some of my fans have created web sites displaying and / or distributing my work on the Internet. And,on the other, I'm struggling to find the words that convincingly but sensitively persuade these Far Side enthusiasts to "cease and desist" before they have to read these words from some lawyer.

Artwork: Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton's art is available on his site. He doesn't mind if someone links to the site or wants to use his work on their private desktop, but that's the only use he permits. Prominent notices throughout his site read "All images and artwork are copyright 1991-2000 Andrew H Denton and Engulf & Devour Graphics. Not for use unless Permission granted. Do not edit or othwise remove from this site. For more Info read the FAQ."

That should do it, you'd think, but still Denton finds his art work on other people's sites.Sometimes people send notes that they're using his art: 'you don't mind, do you?' He's found company logos incorporating his art and has had his initials removed and replaced with someone else's. Digital watermarking, which Denton uses, can prove ownership once he finds his art, but searching for non-text works on the Web is more difficult than searching for written work.

The Saga Continues

Six weeks after Mingo first saw the Shanti quote, I discovered that someone hadn't removed the Shanti humor, as asked, but had simply moved it to a different page. After further sleuthing, I e-mailed Mingo we'd found our point of origin.

The weasel was Joey, a college student who had initially insisted he had no way of knowing Shanti's wisdom was copyrighted. Bunnin had a lawyerly "talk" with Joey, who admitted guilt and apologized, and Bunnin and Mingo decided pursuing legal remedies wasn't worth it.

For this article, I had to ask Mingo, Bunnin, Barry and Adams for permissions because the copyright on their words in my private e-mail is theirs. Alas, I was unable to find Joey.Technically, under copyright law, I shouldn't have quoted him without permission but should have paraphrased him instead: "The college student said that he didn't know where he'd got a copy and didn't have a copyright notice so how was he to know it was copyrighted?" But the paraphrase didn't capture Joey's self-righteous attitude, so I quoted and trust Joey would be willing to forgive this minor infringement in light of the major mess for which he is responsible. Good faith efforts to find a copyright holder are taken into account when a copyright is infringed.

Where are we now? I searched for a distinctive phrase from Shanti's book while researching this article and discovered two hundred sites infringing the Bunnin Mingo copyright. Don't be the two hundred and first thief.

How can you avoid unintentionally infringing someone's copyright? Remember everything published since 1923 is probably under copyright. And add to that Jack Mingo's advice: "A word to the wise: If you 'don't know' where writings have come from, you can almost be assured that they don't belong to you."


Additional links

Brad Templeton'sclassic: 10 Big Myths about Copyright Explained

US Copyright Office - How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work

HRC WATCH (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders)

Internet-Resources.com's collection of copyright links



About the Author

Sal Towse spends her waking hours writing, surfing the Net (research!), and loitering in Usenet newsgroups when she isn't sitting crosslegged on the deck watching events unfold from her perch above the San Francisco Bay, exploring the nooks and crannies of the City or curled up with a good book. You can find her at http://www.towse.com.

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You are here:http://www.towse.com/articles/199904-copyrightinfringement.htm
A version of this article was originally published April 1999 in Computer Bits
Links checked Nov 2005. This page was last updated on 2005-11-22.