Friday, November 03, 2006

Blogs and Copyright: A Rough Guide

Before I begin here, I should briefly register the circumstances under which this post is being written. I am currently 'on location'. When I arrived, I discovered that I had forgotten my power supply. So, as I write, I am carefully watching the rapidly sinking battery indicator, hoping to finish before the machine dies.

I have been looking around at blogs for quite a while now. There seem to be so very many of them. Some blogs are of interest, many are not. The few that I really like It link to. In all this blog watching though, certain trends have become apparent. One of these trends is the apparently formulaic nature of so many blog postings. Indeed, recently this propensity was hilariously parodied by The G Bitch, with her Instant Blog Post Template. The kind of post sent up here I try and avoid, as this type of post is ultimately boring. If I do not have anything to say, I don't post. Simple as that. It seems that other people should try doing likewise.

Another worrying trend I have noticed though is the way that bloggers have little regard for copyright. Although I have slightly transgressed on this front, or played close to the edge once, or twice, as a general rule, I try and respect copyright holders. It seems that I am in a minority in this respect.

There are a couple of common copyright transgressions found on blogs. The first of these concerns pictures. Many bloggers seem to believe that it is just fine to copy any old image onto their blogs, if they can find the image with a quick Google image search. Images are subject to copyright! Another common copyright transgression concerns poetry and text. Some bloggers seem addicted to posting entire poems onto their blog space. Sometimes they provide a link to the source. Other times they do not. Of course, texts too are subject to copyright and permission is needed for texts to be used by a person who is not the copyright holder.

Given the recent aggressive tactics of outfits like the RIAA against people who share music on-line, it is quite surprising that bloggers seem to pay so little attention to copyright law. So, what I will attempt to do in the rest of this post is offer a brief overview of regulations that govern the use of copyrighted material.

What kinds of things are subject to Copyright? The short answer to this question is 'almost everything'. Some texts which are old (over about 75 years -- the exact length, depends upon the country) will be out of copyright, but it is better to presume that most texts and almost all photographs are subject to copyright.

There is no copyright symbol on the web page where I found this text, does that mean it is not subject to copyright? The answer to this question is simply 'No'. It is not necessary for a copyright symbol to be attached to a text or an image for it to be subject to copyright. In addition, it is an additional offence to remove the copyright symbol from a text, even when you are reposting it.

If I just use the text/image on my blog, isn't this what they call 'fair use'? Once again, the answer is 'No'. The doctrine of 'fair use' permits the use of texts for certain purposes, such as scholarly study. However, there are some quite strong limits on 'fair use'. For instance, if more than ten percent of a text is used, then in most cases, it will not be a case of fair use. More importantly though, 'fair use' is not a right, rather it is a defense that can be raised against a claim of copyright infringement. In other words, 'fair use' only really comes into play when a copyright holder has launched a court action. As this will require you to hire lawyers, etc. it is generally not a good idea to appeal to 'fair use'.

If I use something on my blog, will anybody ever notice, or really care? Although there may be a germ of truth in the intuition behind this question, it is not something that should be relied upon. After all, if a copyright enforcement suit is filed against you, the process will be long and expensive. In other words, by using copyrighted material, without permission, a person is taking a very big risk. More importantly though is the fact that copyright holders are getting more and more aggressive about defending their rights. Thus, if you post something which contains copyrighted material today, it may be several months, or even years before the copyright holder comes after you. However, as more content gets bought up by large corporate entities, it becomes increasingly likely that you may find a legal action filed against you.

So, is there any way I can give my readers access to copyrighted materials? The answer here is 'Yes'. If you find the material you are interested in discussing on a web site, including a link to that web site on your blog is perfectly legitimate (at least in most cases).

Is there any other good news about copyright for bloggers? In fact,there is some good news. Everything posted to a blog is also subject to copyright. The copyright is held by the writer. So, by blogging (assuming that what you write is original text) you are creating copyrighted material.

Now, these suggestions are only guidelines. I am not a lawyer, so they should not be taken as the final word on these matters. But the moral here should be very clear - Don't just copy other people's work into your blog!

In fact, there is a final point to be made here. If you find it necessary to fill your blog with the work of others, why are you blogging at all? You might be better off just putting up a links page. It is much more impressive to be able to fill your blog with original, insightful text, than with text and images belonging to others. Indeed, some bloggers seem to think that they can make themselves appear learned and erudite, by reproducing the work of others. This impression is simply misguided. Really, even in the blog arena, posting the work of others amounts to something close to plagiarism. For these reasons then, it should be avoided.

The CP

Useful Links Concerning Copyright
A Copyright Quickguide
A Canadian Copyright Guide
A Copyright Guide for Students (UK) (N.B. .pdf format)
U.S. Copyright Law


Blogger KNH said...

The guide helps define what is and is not copyrighted, but not the right way to use it. The recent book meme in which we participated seems to beg for questions about proper use.

Ok, so I like to quote movies and books in my blog. It's similar to my everyday speech; one-liners to reference a literary work but certainly not copying page upon page. If I cite my source, is this acceptable?

I would not call my blog educational (how many are??), but is this fair use? And if not, then should I stop quoting movies and the like in casual, verbal conversation?

Thanks for any guidance.

9:01 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Your 'everyday speech' example os a good one. This kind of use is just fine. The fair use exception also has a provison for 'critical' use of copyright material. Having looked at your blog (good job, by the way) everything looks like it is on the up and up.

My concern with this post is with bloggers who take entire poems and other passages of text. There are far too many of them.

Thanks for the comment though, please come back.

The CP

11:16 PM  
Blogger Dr. Virago said...

Hi CP. I haven't commented here before, but I've seen your comments around at Flavia's and Bardiac's and other places.

So, you didn't say it directly, but do you have a problem with Friday Poetry Blogging? I have to admit that I've posted 20th century poems now and then, but the bulk of what I post -- medieval and early modern -- is no longer under copyright, so I know it's fair game. But in general, if I'm using something for demonstrative purposes and say so, and it's not being published for profit, doesn't that fall under fair use in the same way that a handout in a classroom would? And what about poetry that's already online in places like Representative Poetry Online and the Virginia text database -- doesn't that suggest that those poems are already in the public domain?

I have to say I have principled issues with estates of long-dead poets being able to renew copyright, but you're right in warning us that that doesn't make us immune to the law as is.

10:35 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Hi Dr. V,
The poetry Friday things is wonderful, at least in principle. However, the point of this post is to urge caution. Copyright is much more draconian than 'common sense' would allow.

The fair use you mention is problematic, as it is a defence against suits being brought. It does not convey a right, as I understand it (remember though, I am not a lawyer). This is the reason I urge caution. I generally think that old stuff is the safest. However, when translation is involved, the translator gets a new copyright, with the translation. This why the whole topic is such a mess!

To complicate matters further, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) does not mention fair use, so who the hell knows what may be argued, by greedy lawyers. My rule of thumb is never quote more than 10% of a text, and then give the link. This is a pain, but it should be safe.

Although texts may be available on other web sites, this does not mean that the texts are in the public domain. The only way to be sure of this is if there is an explicit statement that the work is in the public domain. Some sites, for instance, may have worked out deals with copyright holders, so that they can use the texts. Other uses, would require seperate agreements and deals. Again, this is why links are the way to go (even this is not entirely straightforward, due to the 'deep linking' issue).

One of my motivations for putting up this post is to try and get folks aware of the facts. If blogs generally have high standards of copyright compliance, then they will not be attractive targets for lawsuits. However, if there is a lot of infringement, then greedy lawyers will start trawling, looking for cases to prosecute. I know that some bloggers are total copyright bandits. They make things risky for all other bloggers and should be discouraged.

As for specific advice, your university will have a copyright compliance officer, this is something mandated by the DMCA. You should figure out who your person is and ask them.

The CP

5:00 PM  
Blogger Dr. Virago said...

Thanks for the response. I think I will find out who my compliance officer is and ask him/her about these things for the university website I was planning, which would also indirectly applied to my anon blog, too.


12:21 PM  

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