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Copyright Infringement: Once More, with Slightly Sharper Teeth
by Moira Allen
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Readers responded to last issue's editorial about copyright infringement in a variety of ways. Some wrote to thank me for putting into words the pain, anger and frustration they have felt upon finding their own works stolen. Some wrote with questions about copyright and public domain (which I have attempted to answer in this issue's feature article, below). And some... Well, within 24 hours, at least two people had stolen Victoria's latest column and posted it on their own sites.
So let's take another look at this issue, some of the sources of confusion about copyright infringement, and some of the myths (read "excuses") about stealing another writer's work.
First, there is considerable confusion over the term "public domain." That's not surprising. The word "domain" sounds like a location -- thus, many suppose that if something is "publicly available," it's in the public domain.
In terms of copyright law, however, the term "public domain" does not refer to public availability, but to public ownership. Public domain materials are those that were either never protected by copyright in the first place (e.g., press releases), or materials for which copyright protection has expired (in America, that means most materials published before 1923). When an item is in the "public domain," that means it's owned by the public, rather than any private individual or organization, and thus it is free for everyone to use.
Does this mean that anything published after 1923 is not in the public domain? Not necessarily. Between 1923 and 1978, the answer can be "it depends." (See the chart at http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm for more information on just what it depends upon.) However, materials published after 1978 are protected for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. That means that articles published in this newsletter will be protected by copyright long after most of us have stopped reading altogether.
Please note, as well, that an article does not actually have to bear a copyright notice to be protected. Under copyright law, your work is protected by copyright the moment you write it down. However, posting a copyright notice provides some extra levels of protection; perhaps most importantly, it makes it impossible for someone to claim that they "didn't know" your work was protected.
Now let's look at two of the most common myths/excuses about infringement:
Excuse #1: "I'm doing it to help writers!"
That makes about as much sense as snatching a purse from one woman, handing it to another, and proclaiming, "I'm helping women!" One cannot help writers by stealing from other writers. In reality, one is simply "helping oneself."
Excuse #2: "The writer should be glad of the extra exposure!"
I have yet to hear from a writer who is glad to have their material used without their permission. This excuse rings particularly hollow in the many cases where an infringer removes the author's byline, bio, links to their website and books, and any other information the author might like to promote. But if an infringer truly believes authors are "glad" of the exposure, where is the harm in asking? If an author is genuinely grateful, permission will be granted gladly. If the author isn't, then one avoids the faux pas of committing a criminal act based on a false assumption.
So let's say it straight out, to avoid any further confusion: Copyright infringement is the act of using another person's material without permission. It is theft, in every sense of the word. It is illegal, immoral, and hurtful. And eventually it may end up hurting the thief: What reputable publisher would wish to deal with an author who has a history of copyright infringement?
Now, do I fondly suppose that by saying this, I can change the actions of writers who steal? Of course not. But Writing-World.com can take actions that will at least prevent writers from being able to claim "I didn't know it was wrong!" Henceforth, at Writing-World.com:
As a writer, you can take steps to protect your works as well. Run a search periodically on titles of your posted works, or on key phrases within a work (infringers often change titles and remove bylines). When you find an infringement, we recommend contacting the infringer first; many writers report positive results from a simple, courteous e-mail. If that fails, you can report infringers to the appropriate blog host (e.g., Google), or click the little gear button next to a Facebook post to report it. If your work is posted on a blog or Facebook and the infringer refuses to remove it, add a comment to indicate that the work was posted without the author's permission. Keep in mind that an infringement can only be challenged by the owner of the copyright, or by someone you have authorized to act on your behalf.
Finally, let me reiterate Writing-World.com's policy on the newsletter itself. Readers are welcome to forward the newsletter on by e-mail, in its entirety. They may not, however, post the newsletter or any portion of the newsletter in a blog or website, or reprint it in any way (in print or online), without permission, as this violates the copyrights of our authors.
If you wish to share a great article that you've read here, there's nothing wrong with posting or passing along the link to that article. Now, here I will freely admit that I have been slow in getting issues and articles online. So as part of our effort to combat infringement, I'm going to step that up. From now on, I will include a "link to this article" URL at the end of every article that we post. (Keep in mind that some columns and editorials are not posted on the website.)
Again, we don't expect to be able to single-handedly end the wave of copyright infringement that is sweeping the web. All we really aim to do is change the way infringers see themselves when they look in the mirror. Right now, I suspect, there are many writers who argue: "I didn't know. I'm helping other writers. I'm not a thief!" If you are one of those, well, then...
Now, you do. No, you're not. And yes, you are.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.