On Copyright Violation

It annoys me when I browse the Internet and see teen “web designers” in various forums complaining that they’ve had various “blends” or supposed “original artwork” stolen from them. Said artwork usually contains a sloppily edited celebrity photograph, a few dodgy Photoshop™ brushes or textures, with a few illegally downloaded (yet usually expensive) fonts chucked on top for good measure. These people seem to completely miss the point: they have no rights over “artwork” because it was constructed from original work that does not belong to them in the first place.

These people think that because the materials they used are freely available (now that’s freely, not free: it means “easily accessible”) that they can help themselves and ignore the consequences. This is not the case at all. Just because Google Images, Getty Images, etc allow you to search the images they own, or have collected, does not mean that you’re entitled to take them.

According to Bitlaw, five rights are granted to a copyright owner under the Copyright Act:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work
  • The right to create derivative works based upon the work
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  • The right to display the copyrighted work publicly

This means that any of the following are potentially illegal infringements on the copyright of others work unless you have specific permission to create them:

  • Brushes, textures etc from stock photos
  • Vexels/vectors based on celebrities/stock photos
  • Avatars and icons created using stock/celebrity photos (non royalty-free)
  • Fan fiction etc. purely based on original novels (i.e. taking a novel and modifying it slightly; there is little legal evidence at this time to suggest whether or not writing a new novel using known characters constitutes infringement of copyright)

Those examples are derivative works which, as covered by one of the five rights granted, are only entitled to be commissioned by the original copyright owner. Any work which involves using or manipulating the material of others is potential copyright infringement.

Ah, it’s just fair use.

Quoting “fair use” when taking photography, literature etc to turn into your own material doesn’t work. According to whatiscopyright.org, fair use is the usage of a small section/piece of copyrighted work “as is” (without change) for educational, research, news reporting and parody. This means that downloading a photo of Britney Spears just so you can add it to your own website does not qualify as fair use.

The first two lines of the above paragraph may be considered an example of fair use. I have used information from the whatiscopyright website and re-worded it in a way that provides you with a brief summary of fair use, without copying the text word for word, as per the terms of whatiscopyright.org. (Some original authors and web content writers will allow you to quote paragraphs of text, some won’t — be sure to cover your ass by reading T&C documents.)

So: fair use does not cover using an image or photograph to trace a new vector/vexel, and it does not cover taking pieces of photography to increase your free avatar collection. It certainly does not cover you when you help yourself to entire works without permission!

..but it’s not for profit!

Some people assume that, providing they are not making profit from a stolen piece, they are free to use it however they wish. This is a common misconception. However, although it is very hard to get financial compensation for copyright infringement unless you can prove that you have lost profit from the use by others, it does not make copyright infringement any less serious or illegal.

When you own the copyright to an original piece of work, you are entitled to decide who uses the work and whether it can be used to make profit or not. Using work protected by copyright for your own personal benefit is just as illegal as using it to make cash.

If you’re based in the United States, the No Electronic Theft (“NET”) Act specifically states that copyright infringement is a criminal offense, irrelevant of any whether or not a profit is being made. Also included in this act:

  • Removing copyright notices from copyrighted work
  • Falsely claiming copyright over something that you do not own

It’s not like they can sue me anyway.

Wrong. Another misconception about copyright is that those who take the time to enforce it will only go so far, i.e. won’t prosecute offenders. This just isn’t the case. Copyright is being defended as actively as it has ever been. Offenders are receiving fines, cease and desist letters and orders to pay substantial damages to defendants. For example:

The Wall Street Journal Online

Bloggers, beware: That photo of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes on your Web site could be fodder for a lawsuit. Stock photography companies like Getty Images Inc. and Corbis Corp. are using high-tech tools to crack down on Web site owners who try to use their photographs without paying for them.

Google Watch

An Ohio woman is suing Yahoo for $20 million for allegedly using a photograph of her when advertising Yahoo e-mail services, Google Watch has learned.

The Standard

Hello Kitty’s copyright holders are threatening to sue FM Theater Power, a local drama troupe, for infringing its intellectual property rights, it was revealed Thursday.

The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School

perezhilton.com’s Mario Lavandiera has become a prime target for copyright infringement lawsuits. One Hollywood photo agency recently slapped Lavandeira with a $7.6 million infringement suit. Lavandeira was also recently sued by Universal Pictures for posting a topless photo of Jennifer Aniston

Pop Crunch

Celebrity blogger extraordinaire Perez Hilton has been slammed yet another multi-million dollar lawsuit, and this time it’s from the paparazzi.

See Also

The companies don’t care!

A lame defense perpetrated by those who want to try and cover their asses with no actual evidence supplied by those who suggest it. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars employing lawyers to enforce their legal rights to their material protected by copyright/trademark or patent. It hardly strikes me as the behaviour of an industry that “doesn’t care” that people are helping themselves to things that don’t belong to them.

How can I protect myself from being sued?

Well, you can start by removing any material you have modified or acquired that is not original to you, or that obviously infringes on other people’s copyright. This includes celebrity images from websites that do not have the right to distribute them (many are also illegally redistributing work), and photos from stock sites that aren’t specifically free to use. Remember: royalty free DOES NOT mean actually free.

How can I protect myself from copyright theft?

From a copyright owner point of view, simply continue doing what you’re doing. Unless you wish to sue for monetary damages should infringement occur, copyright does not have to be activated or registered to be valid. Some sources claim that all you need to do is prove that you are the original author/artist/etc and the easiest way to do this is to record your data (be it on paper, CD or another tangible form) and then post it to yourself — the post mark will act as proof of the date of the new creation. Do not open the post when you receive it, simply file it away safe. If your work is worth real financial value, visit your local Copyright Office to register your work. As an addition, I would recommend consulting an attorney/solicitor that specialises in copyright law and/or digital rights.

Summary

At the end of the day, nothing is going to stop you or anyone else from infringing on the copyright of others if you’ve already set yourself out to do so. You are likely to walk away having read this feeling entirely the same as you did before. However, do not expect to be treated lightly if you get caught, and do not expect anyone to sympathise with you if your “creations” from stolen material are then stolen themselves.

A rule to live by: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words: if you don’t want to be stolen from, don’t steal from others.

Appreciation

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