Author Topic: Copyright, Creative Commons, and Licensing  (Read 5654 times)


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Copyright, Creative Commons, and Licensing
« on: August 28, 2015, 01:06:48 AM »
This tutorial is aiming to deal with copyright law with a focus on the UK. Lots of this stuff will be relevant in most countries but when in doubt consult a local source. it will also cover licenses in the realm of distributing things non-commercially.

Importantly this tutorial deals with copyright. It does not deal with trade marks, trademarks, patents, registered designs, or anything else IP-related. If you're needing some knowledge about names of products, brand names, and related things like that you're in the wrong place. Those things are trade marks and aren't directly related to copyright.


Part 1: Copyright

Let's see whether I can find a good starting point. Copyright is a form of protection. Whoever owns the copyright on something controls certain rights.

I guess we'll look at the "something" of that first. The most important principle here is that what is being protected is the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. If you paint a picture of a unicorn you own that version of it. If I decide to also paint a picture of a unicorn I can - but it has to be my interpretation of the idea.

Ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted.

So, you've painted your unicorn. How do you copyright it?
Well, you sort of already have. There's no registration procedure. You finished the painting and it's now copyrighted. You own the rights to it. You don't need to put a © symbol next to it, although you can if you want.

Copyright is supposed to protect it though, isn't it? From what?

Let's take a look at the 1988 Copyrights, Designs, and Patents Act:
The owner of the copyright in a work has, in accordance with the following provisions of this Chapter, the exclusive right to do the following acts in the United Kingdom—
  • to copy the work
  • to issue copies of the work to the public
  • to rent or lend the work to the public
  • to perform, show or play the work in public
  • to communicate the work to the public
  • to make an adaptation of the work or do any of the above in relation to an adaptation

As the copyright owner you can do those things and if anyone else does them you have a case against them. That's what copyright infringement is - doing one of those things without the express permission of the rights holder. You've probably committed copyright infringement any number of times without even knowing it. The law is pretty broad as it stands.

Copyrighted works aren't protected forever though - eventually they enter the Public Domain and can be used by anyone for whatever purpose they choose. The caveat here is that for most works the point at which that happens is 70 years after the creator's death. I don't know who settled on that number but it seems a little excessive to me.

With any luck you've now got the general gist of what copyright is and how it applies to you.

At this point I'd like to provide a little example of a situation that I'll be referring back to in the second part of this guide:

Let's say I've written a book. I've decided to make it an eBook and distribute it on my website. As a bit of a promo I decide to give out free copies for a week. After that I start selling it and take away the free option. Eventually sales slow and as a friendly gesture I start giving it away for free to the handful of people still interested. Fast forward a few years and I decide to write a sequel to my first book. Shortly before release I start selling the first book again.

I'm well within my rights to do all of those things because I am the rights holder (assuming I didn't sell the rights to someone else). If someone decided to share copies of my book with other people they would be committing copyright infringement. The fact that I was giving it away is irrelevant because it was mine to give away. Just because something didn't require payment doesn't mean others can consider it public property.

Worse than that though there are increasingly wide spread automatic tools for detecting this sort of thing. This matters because I might not care that others were sharing my free book. The tools that detect these things don't care about my thoughts as the rights holder! As a result readers could well get into trouble even though I didn't feel they were doing anything wrong!

Part 2: Licensing

Licensing is fairly important to how intellectual property things work. You've probably agreed to some sort of IP license at some point. Most software has one. What you're agreeing to when you accept their terms is essentially a set of conditions within which you can use their work. When you buy a game you aren't buying the rights to it, just a license to have access to it.

The reason this matters to you as a rights holder is that it's the way in which you put your work out there. Unless you stipulate a license all work defaults to the status of "all rights reserved". If I put an eBook online with no additional info others may do things with it (e.g. post big chunks on their blog, make an audiobook of it, etc..). I'd be well within my rights to chase them down as without further information they should have assumed that it was not clear to use.

If I'd stated that it was available under some licensing terms then they could look at the license and then make a decision to use it based on those terms.

There's lots of different licenses out there though and some of them are downright confusing. When it comes to distributing content commercially I suggest you do further research into licenses and see whether you need one. This guide is more about how to release things for free whilst controlling how they're used.

Part 3: Creative Commons

Creative Commons have put together a set of licenses that are rather handy. They've sorted out the legal side so all we have to do is pick the things that matter to us and stipulate that our work is under that license.

Here's their license picker page. The licenses they show there aren't the only ones available though so some digging may be required if you want to use an older version. The Wikipedia page has some useful information on the subject.

Choose a license, mark the work in some way, done!

The end result is that if someone wants to share the file with their friends they can and are legally allowed to do so. You also have the option of allowing them to make derivative works using your material, or remix it in some way.

The only thing to remember with these licenses is that they are irrevocable. Once you've released a work under a license you cannot undo it. You can make it available under other licenses and you're not obligated to continue distributing the CC version. The reason this matters is that if I receive a file marked "Creative Commons attribution" and the author's name I should be safe to assume that the license still applies.  If the license could be revoked then this wouldn't work and we'd be spending all our time trying to find out what the rights holders feel like this fortnight!

With any luck this guide was helpful. Feel free to post questions but bear in mind that I'm not a lawyer. I've just been doing my research and bothering the IPO in my spare time.