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Copyright Basics for Content Creators

Copyright law is an important legal consideration for podcasters and other content creators, and an interesting topic for those who study the culture industry.  These laws help define the content creator’s rights to control and profit from their creations.  They spell out the legal hazards of drawing on other people’s intellectual property when creating your own content.  Content creators are establishing legally-owned property, and may also be illegally appropriating someone else’s property in the course of their creative work.  These laws establish the ground rules that govern the creation and transmission of culture; they define what can be expressed publicly and thus what type of speech or express is available to us.

What is Copyright?

Copyrights refer to a set of laws that give people ownership over images, texts, or sounds (collectively, “content”).  The U.S. Copyright Office lists a range of examples of what can be copywritten: literature, computer code, music, lyrics, performances, scores, pantomimes, dances, pictures, graphics, sculptures, videos, sound recordings, and architectural works.  Compilations of this content — from edited volumes to programs that compile code — can be considered ownable property as well.

What can be Copywritten?

According to U.S. law, someone owns a piece of content if it has some measure of originality and is captured by some communications medium in some way that can be “perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time”.  If you draw a picture on a cocktail napkin, you can law ownership claims on that picture.  If you record yourself banging out an improv song on the piano, it is yours.  In the abstract, you would own any images, text, or sounds that you post online — like a blog entry, video, or sound file – but matters grow more complex once we start considering things like terms of employment, whether you used other people’s protected material, and what specific rules apply to the context in which you posted it.

This ownership exists over a particular instantiation of text, image, or sound.  You cannot copyright ideas, concepts, principles, facts, theories, or short phrases (e.g., “OK Boomer”, “Where’s the Beef?”).  You can establish copyright over your photographs of European doors, but you cannot stop other people from creating and owning their own European door photos.  Technically, you expose yourself to legal claims by singing your favorite songs publicly at an open mic night without consent, but there are no restrictions on trying to emulate your favorite singer.  Copyright law does not prevent people from immitating owned content.  It more narrowly restricts the reproduction and reuse of a particular piece of content.  However, the details of precisely where the line lies between acceptable and non-acceptable is emulation or reproduction is a matter that is ultimately decided by a judge or jury.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

For content that was created after 1977, these ownership rights continue for the duration of its author’s life plus seventy years.  Prior to that change in law, copyrights lasted 28 years from a work’s publication date, which could be renewed to a total of 56 years.   Under old laws, creative works by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, Betty Frieden, and Alfred Hitchcock would be entering the public domain, and thus free for everyone to use.  Whereas the old rules gave a content creator property rights for a generation or two, they now last over a century.  In effect, copyright law has evolved to more strictly privatize culture and communication.

What Kind of Protection?

Copyright endows owners with the legal right to control their content’s reproduction, distribution, public display, or use in the creation of publicly-displayed derivative content.  If someone violates these rights (an copyright infringement), the property-holder can seek remedy through the court system.  In cases where the copyright was not registered with the United States Copyright Office, then one can sue for actual damages, which is the amount of money that the property-holder lost due to the infringement.  However, registered copywritten material can entitle the property-holder to damages of up to $700 to $30,000 per work, regardless of the existence of a demonstrable economic loss.  So, for example, singing a copywritten Christmas carol, reading a copywritten poem at an open mic night, or showing a movie DVD at a public children’s even could conceivably lead to legal action of up to $30,000 per work (plus lawyer fees) in federal court.

In Closing

These are the basic points of copyright law.  Of course, the details of people’s legal rights in particular cases will depend on many more details. Always consult a lawyer when you are affected by such a legal threat yourself.  The context of a piece of content’s production, the particular ways in which is original versus derivative, the circumstances of its reproduction or distribution, the intent for which the content was reproduced, and many other factors complicate people’s rights under particular circumstances. 

The key takeaway here is that, in America, there is a strong regime of private ownership that governs many of the images, texts, and sounds that form part of our everyday communication and culture.  Copyright help defines creators’ property, and sets limits on which creators can create without incurring the risk of legal claims from others.

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