Copyright: Part 1 – Just Because It’s Online Doesn’t Mean It’s in the Public Domain

A post by Jeanne Dininni at Writer’s Notes got me thinking about copyright. She had her work posted on a Web site without permission though the site owner gave her credit and a link to her site. Another piece was actually plagiarized. Be sure to read the ongoing conversation in comments as well as Jeanne’s post.

Jeanne differentiates between the unauthorized use and the plagiarism, and I agree they are different. Plagiarism is deliberate theft; unauthorized posting of work with credit and a link is most likely the result of ignorance.

I’ve never had the experience of having my work stolen. As common as unauthorized use of content is, the only reason I can think of that I’ve been spared is because no one has found my work worth copying. 🙂

Joking aside, unauthorized use of content is a serious problem – and not just online. Most people are ignorant about copyright. Here are just a few examples from my own experience:

  • Several clients have asked me to use something they found online in a document I am preparing for them. In some cases they plan to credit the source; in others, they just want to copy the material without credit. When I tell them the material is copyrighted, they respond, “No, it’s not copyrighted. It’s online.” Many people sincerely believe that if it’s online, it’s in the public domain.
  • One client wanted me to include some material from another publication in a manual I was creating for her company. I explained that would be a violation of copyright. “But I wrote it,” she said. This lady is highly ethical and would never think of stealing money or property, but she just didn’t understand that she would stealing the rights of the copyright owner if she used the material she had written as work for hire.
  • I even encounter this in editing my church’s newsletter. Just this week, a church member submitted two articles for publication in the newsletter. Both were copyrighted – one was a newspaper column and the other had a copyright notice on the page along with “used by permission.” I explained that the copyright to the newspaper column was probably owned by the newspaper unless the author was a syndicated columnist who owned the rights. And even though the other document said “used by permission,” the permission was granted to the source where the submitter got the material, not to us. Again, this is a man who tries to live out his faith and operates at the highest standard of integrity. Yet out of ignorance, he asked me to violate two different people’s copyrights in our church newsletter.

Even if the person doesn’t know any better and thinks he is giving the writer the ultimate compliment by posting the work, writers need to be diligent and require copyright violators to remove the work. If we allow our work to be used without permission, we are contributing to the deterioration of our rights. We need to protect our work by educating people about copyright.

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