What is it and when does it apply?
Copyright is complicated and the nuances are still argued in court. I’ll give you some basics here, but I am by no means a copyright lawyer. You should not use my informational post as a basis for a copyright claim.
Let’s start with the official U.S. Copyright Office definition (from copyright.gov): “A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for “original works of authorship”, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. “Copyright” literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work.” Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, title, principle, or discovery. Similarly, names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, and listings of contents or ingredients are not subject to copyright.”
Copyright kicks in the moment you created a protected work. Automatically, no registration required. The little © isn’t even required. Officially registering your work however, creates an accepted public record of your copyright and is necessary if you need to pursue legal action in the future. This blog, for example, is automatically protected under copyright law, but is not officially registered with the copyright office.
FYI: There is no worldwide copyright law. Accepted practice varies. Have a couple of weeks and want to read the entire U.S. law, you can get it here.
FYI #2: Copyright, patent, and trademark are all different things. You cannot copyright a name for example, but could protect it through trademark. Visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Department for a simple explanation of the differences.
What is public domain?
A work is in the public domain if the copyright has expired or if the author has explicitly placed it in the public domain. You can use works in the public domain freely without obtaining permission. Generally, this applies to works published before 1923.
But it gets even more complicated: Works published between 1923 and 1977 are all over the place; use this nifty slider chart to help you determine its status. For works published after 1977, the copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death (after the last surviving author’s death if multiple). Works from corporate authors are protected 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter). There are many exceptions however, as changing laws over the years have allowed for copyright extensions. As of right now, no new copyrights will expire and place works into the public domain until 2019 (see the copyright term extension act, also known as the Sonny Bono Act, or Mickey Mouse Protection Act).
FYI: Generally, documents created by the federal government are public domain.
What is fair use?
Let’s start with the U.S. Copyright Office definition again: “Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. . . . The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”
Key points here – just because you cite your source doesn’t mean what you are using falls under fair use. Just because your purpose is education, doesn’t mean it is fair use (I can’t copy an entire book for my research purposes, for example). Another example, a high school student can freely quote from a source for use in a research paper, but cannot quote large sections in place of their own thoughts.
FYI: Your “fair use” of a work should not impact the originally author financially.
What is Creative Commons?
The best way to explain creative commons is to take it straight from their website (which I can do thanks to the terms of their CC license): “Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Our free, easy-to-use copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice. CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.”
What does this mean? Authors can decide to put a CC license for more flexibility in what they allow users to do with their work. It encourages sharing, because the use terms are clearly spelled out and often much more liberal than “all rights reserved.”
My opintion? Creative Commons is awesome.