Copyright, by Me

Nearly every time I speak to a group or teach a class, someone asks about copyright:
“Aren’t you afraid that someone will steal your ideas or posts and use them somewhere else?”

“How do you protect your work so nobody can copy it?”

“If I read someone else’s story and subconsciously copy something they said, can I be sued?”

“If I want to include something someone else said, how much can I use without violating copyright?”
Like all authors, I put a lot of work into what I write, whether that’s a blog post, a book chapter, a program description or handout, or an e-mail. I freely admit that I’m influenced by the work of other writers, and I often write on topics I’ve recently read about. However, I don’t write about anything until I’ve mulled it over enough to develop my own thoughts and opinions and can honestly say that what I write is my unique perspective because that’s how I learn and grow. And, it keeps me out of court.

That gently modified perspective is what sets my work apart from the work I read earlier. I’ve taken a concept and given it a slightly different twist, as the person who inspired me did in her turn. We are each part of a chain of literary and philosophical evolution. At the risk of sounding like I’m inviting people to snag my work and repost it, which I most certainly am not, I will say that I don’t put anything on the Internet that I’m deeply attached to.

Please respect the work of any author and use it to develop your own message. Write about the topic your way and add your voice to the choir. But don’t copy my work or anyone else’s verbatim, especially without giving us credit. That’s both illegal and unethical.

Anything anyone writes, even a note on a napkin, is copyright by virtue of having been written. Many of us include a copyright notice on our stories and other work when we distribute it publicly. That is as simple as placing a line at the end or some other suitable place saying copyright, (current year) by (Your Name). Or you can use the copyright symbol to replace the word: © 2009, Sharon Lippincott.

For the greatest legal protection, register your copyright. You can do this online. The fee is currently $25 per item, so I reserve this for the most important documents, like book manuscripts.

The chances of subconsciously recreating the words of another author closely enough to put yourself at risk are slim. If you have questions or doubts, reread the original, and change yours if need be.

If you want to quote someone, you can use short excerpts without permission, according to Fair Usage laws. But anytime you quote the work of others, directly or indirectly, you should credit the author. Ditto on graphics. Don’t swipe graphics from a website to slap onto your own. Graphics are covered b the same copyright law as text. Noting in print today will be in the public domain within our lifetimes. If you ask permission, you’ll often get it, and sites like Flickr have photos available for your use under what’s called a Creative Commons license, which generally stipulates that you are free to use the photo as long as you cite the source.

If you have further questions about copyright, check these links:
A brief intro to copyright
Ten Big Myths about copyright explained
United States Copyright Office
Some Observations on Copyright Law
Bottom line: Keep your eyes on your own monitor and don’t copy the work of your neighbors. Stealing stories is bad form and bad karma.

Right now: a short essay an your thoughts about copying. Did you copy on tests in school? Did you ever turn someone in? How do you understand the difference between inspiration, adaptation, and stealing?


Terri said...

Can I ask a question - I'm so confused on this copyright issue. I've read and re-read the laws and am still lost. Here's my question - I want to create a book useing photographs that I have taken - I would like to include some quotes and poems with those photo's. Can I or can't I use the poems - the law as I read it is that anything before 1978 is no longer protected (?) How do I find out if a particular quote or poem is under copyright protection?(this book would be for resale)

Ritergal said...

I'm not an expert on copyright law, but I do know that it used to be forty years and sometime around 1978 that changed. One of the links I posted is to the website of the United States Copyright Office, and you should be able to dig around and find the specific information you need. Good luck!

Gullible said...

I can't stand it. "Aren't you afraid someone will steel [sic] your ideas...." Please fix it.


Ritergal said...

Oh my! How did that slip by? Thank you for pointing it out. Please stop by and proof read anytime. :-)

Jeanne said...

THaaaaaaaank youuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!

I'm not sure I could have slept at night without that change. Your site is linked at my blog.


PS: Is it only a coincidence that the word verification so I can post this message is"nohitol?" As in "noh-it-ol."

Ritergal said...

Jeanne, I'm sure we've met in some corner of cyberspace, but I don't recognize your face...

Thanks for the link. You've earned one of your own here.

Beth W. said...

Your explanation of copyright was one of the most sensible, "real world" ones I have heard.


Gullible said...

No, Ritergal, I don't believe we've met. Found a link to you at the Elder Storytelling place, where a few of my stories have been posted.

Of course, if you've been to Moose Pass, Alaska, we may have bumped into each other at the general store or the post office.

Smockity Frocks said...

Thank you for posting this. I came here from Pat's Place.

I am going to do a little digging about copyrights and pictures. I sometimes use pictures that I don't own as illustrations for my posts and am now wondering if I have been breaking the law! Yikes!

Ritergal said...

Hey Smockity,

Technically, yes, you are in violation. When I need a photo sometimes I take my own. Sometimes I go to Flickr's Creative Commons interface and search for one, and sometimes I use Microsoft's free clipart site. Once in awhile I'll ask permission. I never just drag and drop, and I do include credit lines for the Creative Commons ones. You don't see many credit lines because I seldom use those. I hope these sources help.