Copyright doesn’t mean a right to copy

I was leafing through the newsletter from a favorite organization when I saw they had committed an illegal act. On page three, they reprinted a brief item from Reader’s Digest. It was related to their mission, and they did include a credit line. But all the same, they broke the law.

Which law? Copyright law. Unless they obtained specific permission from the publishers of the magazine, reprinting the item violated both U.S. and global copyright provisions. If those publishers pursued the case, the organization would lose and be liable for financial damages, regardless of their intent and their well-intentioned addition of a credit line. (I’m not an attorney and I’m not qualified to dispense legal advice. I’m just sharing a practical understanding of copyright law.)

Even more disturbing is the many times a company has handed me a competitor’s brochure or other written material and said, “This is what our brochure (or whatever) should say. Just go ahead and use these words.” I refuse for three reasons. First, I’d be the accessory to an illegal act. Second, no two companies are identical, so their messages shouldn’t be. Third, I’ll do a better job of conveying the message than their competitor did.

If you’ve used other people’s or organization’s words in your own materials or communications efforts, you may wonder why I see it as a big deal. When you reprinted that story from Veeblefetzer Industry Report in your company’s newsletter, you put their name at the bottom. How can that be illegal? The simple answer is you’ve taken somebody else’s property and used it without asking.

I earn my living by writing. Companies and other organizations pay me to create articles, ads, brochures, website content, and blog posts. That’s my product. People who have used things I’ve written without my permission have told me they were doing me a favor. They were giving my words a bigger audience. I should understand that it’s a compliment.

But they don’t have a right to make that decision on my behalf or to use my work without proper compensation. What I write belongs to me (or my clients, in the case of what’s known as work for hire). Other people have as much right to use those words without permission as I have to walk into their homes and walk out with their home theater systems. They wouldn’t consider such an act as complimenting their taste in home electronics; they’d call it theft. And that’s exactly what it would be.

Many people who have used other’s words without permission cite a concept called “fair use.” Most encountered it while they were in school. While that concept does exist, it’s widely misunderstood. The basic idea behind fair use is that you can copy material without copyright infringement for certain purposes, such as commenting upon it or developing a formal critique.

Suppose you’re an English teacher and you want students to understand how dialogue can be used to advance a plot. You might reprint several lines from a David Mamet play to illustrate the idea. That’s fair use. But if you use the school’s copier to reprint the entire play so your students didn’t have to buy a copy, that’s infringement.

Another example: if you were writing a post for your blog and wanted to share an idea I’ve mentioned in this article, you could quote me by reprinting a sentence or a short paragraph, and you’d be okay under fair use. Reprint this entire article without asking or take a paragraph from it and claim it as your own writing, and you’ve violated the law. Copying the full length or a substantial part of something almost never falls under fair use.

So if you see something like that Reader’s Digest item that you’d like to share with your readers, what can you do? It’s pretty simple: ask for permission. Many authors will be flattered and will happily give you an okay (maybe for a credit line and a copy of the finished piece). A copyright owner might also request a payment to allow you to use the content, which is known as licensing.

Of course, you might get away with copyright infringement. You might also get away with robbing the neighborhood liquor store. Both are examples of stealing something that belongs to someone else, and if you’re caught, both carry stiff penalties. If you wouldn’t steal something from another person’s home or business, you shouldn’t steal their intellectual property, either.