Thursday, May 29, 2014

'Copyright' or 'Copyleft'


[Reprint]  I've been surprised at how often people automatically try to copyright something they have posted on the Internet. People don't seem to understand what 'copyright' is really all about and how to use it properly. They ought to think 'open access' and consider going with some form of Creative Commons 'copyleft' protection instead.

My impression is that many of these people want to be recognized for having taken the time to research and post something of interest to the public – a picture or a bit of history. It's not that they intend to make any money selling whatever facts they have discovered and shared – they simply want some acknowledgment or credit for their efforts.

Instead of trying to 'copyright' their work, what they might really want to consider doing is using some form of 'copyleft' or Creative Commons license. This allows others to use and share what they have found with others, as long as they receive some acknowledgement or credit for what they posted on the Internet.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. In other words, I don't think posting an historical factoid or brief description of an historical incident qualifies for copyright protection. See http://www.copyright.gov

Copyright is a legal concept enacted by most governments, that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution, usually for a limited time, with the intention of enabling the creator of intellectual wealth (e.g. author of a book) to receive compensation for their work and be able to financially support themselves. See Wikipedia

Copyright laws emerged hundreds of years ago after the emergence of the printing press and publication houses. However, the development of digital media and computer network technologies have prompted reinterpretation of these exceptions, introduced new difficulties in enforcing copyright, and inspired additional challenges to copyright law's philosophic basis.

Again, let me emphasize that the justification for copyright laws was to enable creators of intellectual wealth to financially support themselves and give them a motive to continue publishing their creations. Without copyright, artists, authors, journalists, photographers, or anyone else who creates non-material economic wealth would have to find another way to support themselves.

The original length of copyright in the United States was 14 years, and it had to be explicitly applied for. If the author wished, they could apply for a second 14 year monopoly grant, but after that the work entered the 'public domain', so it could be used and built upon by others.

Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. For example, the courts have ruled that reproductions of two-dimensional works such as paintings and photographs that were already in the public domain could not be considered original enough for protection under U.S. law.

If you haven't heard, the Creative Commons organization has been described as being at the forefront of the 'copyleft' movement, which seeks to support the building of a richer public domain by providing an alternative to the automatic "all rights reserved" copyright license.

Copyleft is the practice of using the law to offer the right to freely distribute or share copies of one's work with some restrictions, like ensuring they receive some form of recognition from their peers when they reuse the work. Common practice for using copyleft is to codify the copying terms for a work with a copyleft license of some sort. Such a license typically gives other people many of the same freedoms as the author, including:

  • freedom to reuse the work,
  • freedom to study the work,
  • freedom to copy and share the work with others,
  • freedom to modify the work and redistribute the modified or derivative works.

To conclude, many people who post interesting items of history that they have discovered during their research really ought to avoid the use of copyright, but instead should join the growing 'open access' movement and freely share their findings with others. That way everyone benefits, recognition is received, and knowledge gets shared on a much wider scale. The main reason most amateur authors or researchers make their works openly accessible is to maximize the impact of their research.

By open access, we mean its immediate, free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full text of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software or use them for any other lawful purpose…”   -  See The Budapest Open Access Initiative


I felt impelled to write this short blog after doing some work on a local history site. I kept running into interesting bits of information about geneaology, historical facts, or pictures of people from centuries ago that were all copyright protected by whoever posted them on the Internet. They obviously wanted to share the information and hoped to receive some recognition for their efforts. Should they have used the 'copyright' protection? Or should they have used the 'copyleft' protection? What do you think?

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