Have things really changed that much?  Twenty years ago I was working as an intellectual property manager for a big NASA-funded project studying and promoting the power of the Internet in communicating, teaching and learning. It was my job to create and oversee the process and procedures for protecting the work of forty or so very creative staff and for educating them on copyright issues in such as way as to avoid any infringement lawsuits that might otherwise come our way.

Like most of us do today, the staff members thought they had a handle on the salient points of copyright: to them these points were 1) I created it, 2) I own it and 3) I can sue if you steal it.  The perspective was most always from their side of the copyright equation.  If any project work was appropriated without a grant, they were up in arms, as well, maybe, they should be. However, if I had to rein in some project staff’s questionable uses of non-project work, claims of fair use would fly from staff in all positions: graphic designers, writers, researchers and software developers.

It’s the same today. Most of us get a clear sense of the “its mine” side of the equation, but not the “its theirs” side of the equation.  Fair use has its place in the copyright scheme of things, but depending too heavily on it can be dangerous.  Remember, there are guidelines for determining what fair use is but no definite rules. There are lots of myths out there about how much content is a fair use, about the development of a free product always allowing fair use, etc.  And, there is much confusion about the difference between fair use and public domain, which does come with some definite use rules.

Today, while working with speakers, graphic and fine artists, and authors, I see the same reactions to copyright issues that I saw twenty years ago; and I find the misconceptions about fair use and public domain can lead to some serious and costly mistakes.  People, after many hours, possibly months or years of research and collection of content, will hit a brick wall of rights questions when they decide to publish. Articles from now defunct magazines for example are not necessarily copyright-free. Individual contributors may have registered and may still own the copyright on those articles. Beatles interviews have a great deal of value attached to them and there would likely be unhappy consequences for the creative who appropriates them without a grant of rights simply because they see them as cultural icons that should belong to us all.

And I am not just talking about taking care with copyright issues in our print works. In today’s marketplace, the author or illustrator promotes himself with blogs, contributions to other’s sites, and taped presentations. Online creative works have the same copyrights attached to them as print works. It’s important to have knowledge of the fair use guidelines and traps associated therewith before contributing content containing other’s work to any site or before accepting on our sites other’s work containing content that may have rights attached.

Joyce Miller of Integrated Writer Services offers consultations and permissions tracking to writers and artists around the world. She will be teaching a course on the basics of copyright for CIPA College.