Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What every Internet user should know: copyright and stuff

The Internet is a series of tubes (*laughs*) but not only. What makes the Internet a wonderful place is the content. And with content comes the notion of copyright, fair use, freedom of speech, etc.

As with the law, nobody is supposed to ignore it, but frankly copyright is a mess and nobody can reasonably be expected to understand everything about it. For the sake of clarity, this article covers provisions of copyright laws which are valid in many Western countries and will ignore the particular laws that differ from one country to another.

When you encounter content on the Internet (photos, articles from blogs or from press websites, videos, music, games, etc.) you should assume "by default" that the content is copyrighted. Because it has been created by someone and that someone owns a moral right to have his name associated with that content and (maybe) an exploitation right to control the distribution and reap the benefits from his creation. This is the default assumption, since this is the historical model that humanity has inherited as a legacy from the television and music business models.

There are exceptions, though, to copyright and as we'll see a bit further there are alternate ownership models to copyright. The exceptions include (but are not restricted to... as any lawyer would say) "fair use", which means that you can use copyrighted material as a basis for satire, parody, illustration, critique, etc. Of course, fair use supposes that your own creation has a point to make (regardless of how valid or how pertinent your point is) beyond just being a ripoff of someone else's creation. An example of fair use is the court case Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. A mother had posted a video on Youtube where her baby was dancing to a (copyrighted) song. The point of that video was not the song but the child's dance. The Court therefore ruled in favor of this being a case of "fair use".

Alternative #1: public domain. Historically, copyright was introduced to allow creators (musicians, poets, authors, painters...) to make a living from their creation, but copyright expires so that those creations may become part of the common good after they have benefited their creator and his heirs for years. In Western countries, copyright often expires 50 to 70 years after the creator's death (rather than after the creation was published). So if you consider the optimist case (for society) of 50 years, we can now enjoy in the public domain (that is, free from copyright) the works of people who died in 1963 or earlier. Ernest Hemingway's works just made it into the public domain 2 years ago... while some translations of his works strangely still benefit from a protection status that leads to stranger things like the violent intimidation of a hobbyist translator who wanted to provide his very own French translation of The Old Man and the Sea, which had become part of the public domain.

If you create something yourself, you can also explicitly choose to contribute your creation directly into the public domain. To put it simply ("simplistically" would be more accurate), you're giving away your creation to everybody.

Alternative #2: Copyleft, Licensing and Creative Commons. Many creators have felt the desire to find a middle ground between an all-out confiscation of their audience's rights (the copyright model) and an all-out looting of their works sometimes by clumsy people who don't understand intellectual property and sometimes by ill-intentioned profiteers. Licensing allows an author to retain "some" rights while giving away the rest of rights. It also allows to stipulate conditions for the exercise of rights. Consider Linux, the free open-source competitor to Microsoft Windows! You're allowed to use it. You're allowed to make and distribute copies of it. You're allowed to modify it. And you're even allowed to make and distribute copies of your modified version of it. BUT... and that's a significant "but"... there's a condition: any copy (modified or not) that you distribute has to be ruled by the same exact license terms as the copy you received and possibly modified. This prevents people from making a copy and suddenly claiming full copyright on the copy.

Creative Commons (CC) are a modular form of licensing which allows everybody to define simple rules for protecting their intellectual property. They may want their name to remain associated with the creation. They may allow (or not) derivative works and/or distribution by third parties. They may allow (or not) the commercial use of their creation by a third party. Etc. I strongly recommend CC to people who want to share their creations but don't exactly know how to do so.


What this article means beyond raising awareness however so slightly, is that Internet users should pay attention to intellectual property when they find something of interest which they might want to copy. That's particularly true of photos which are often reused as wallpapers or as a background image for a website or as an illustration or background in a PowerPoint presentation. There are websites dedicated to creations published under a free license. If you want to find free photos, you may find free photos at Pixabay or Public Domain Photos. This has been a very imprecise account of the topic, but I think being vague and providing a superficial treatment of the subject was useful to making it understandable. If questions arise in the comments (which is unlikely considering the number of visitors) I'll try and answer more accurately.

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