An anecdotal case study in copyright law

An anecdotal case study in copyright law

Everyone is familiar with copyright infringement, and with the related and more specific term of plagiarism. But, knowing of a term and actually understanding it are two very different things. For instance, last month a professional and seasoned Public Relations specialist posted a rather alarming question to our networking group. He wanted to know if it was OK to take a full screen shot of a Wikipedia article for use on his blog.

He framed his question by saying that he knew it was fine to reuse and republish images from Wikipedia, but what about the written content? Here’s the answer he received: No. It’s not OK to republish a Wikipedia article, or any article for that matter, in any form, including a screenshot, without permission as doing so violates copyright laws.

It seems his misunderstanding in this case was grounded in the notion that if someone creates something for free and makes it widely and freely available, then they forgo all claims of copyright to the material. Nothing could be further from reality. If a creator chooses to forgo compensation for a work, does that make him or her any less the creator? Because that’s who holds natural copyright under the law–the creator of the work.

If a seven-year-old draws a cartoonish character from the figments of her imagination, she is the immediate copyright owner of that drawing, and as such, has very distinct rights under U.S. copyright laws.If she sells that drawing, and in so doing gives up her claim to copyright in exchange for the compensation, then the buyer becomes the copyright holder. If she does not, she retains copyright to it. If she decides to hang the drawing up in her school’s lobby, or posts it to a Flicker account on the Internet, she’s still the copyright holder and has protected rights under the law; one of which is to decide if and how it can or cannot be used by others.

Copyright, Public Interest and Political Discourse

Now let’s say our hypothetical artist is Suri Cruise, daughter to iconic actor Tom Cruise and actress Katie Holmes. Suppose that the drawing depicts cartoonish characters that she has captioned “Church of Scientology Meeting.” In this instance, while she is still the copyright holder, it will be much harder for her to control if and how the work is republished.

Why? Because the drawing will be of massive public interest, since everyone is familiar with her parents and with the highly scrutinized Church of Scientology. If a journalist publishes the drawing as part of an article on the Church, and perhaps, how Suri perceives the inner-workings of Scientology, a judge will likely side with the publication in any claim of copyright infringement made by Suri and her parents.

That is because political discourse and the public’s interest generally trump an individual’s copyright claims in the eyes of the court. But there are degrees of tolerance here. Degrees that are governed by the Fair Use rule for just how much of a copyright holder’s work can be republished in the interest of the public.

If instead of a single drawing, our hypothetical entailed a story on the Church of Scientology, then Fair Use would generally prohibit publication of the entire story without the copyright holder’s permission. Rather, only a part or percentage of the story would be acceptable for publication without permission as part of the journalist’s larger article.