It’s a hard question to answer. The simple answer, is that copyright is a law that protects the rights of a creator to their work. Classes and volunteer work have recently brought home the complexities of copyright law. I’ll discuss some of the complexities below.
First, an amusing interlude. All thanks to my friend Andrew, who shared this link with my DigiClass today. I’ve enjoyed it, and it does give good basic information regarding copyright. The video was created by Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society and while you can see the Creative Commons License for this blog at the bottom of the page, this video is licensed under a Creative Commons Atribution – Non-commercial – Share Alike 3.0 License. For information on the different meanings of Creative Commons Licenses, you can visit creativecommons.org.
And that’s really the basics, explained fairly well. Copyright protects the creators of an item for a limited period of time, and fair use may allow you to use that item without having to get permissions, or pay for the use. However, it’s important to know what falls under fair use, and whether your use counts as fair. I’m going to do some more reading regarding Fair Use (because I’m going to do some research into Fan Fiction, most of which is in violation of copyright, but some of which can be argued to be fair use) and I’ll probably post more about fair use then.
Another aspect of copyright is the public domain. That’s what I’m working with most right now, because I’ve just started volunteering as a reader with LibriVox.org. LibriVox takes books, poems and plays that are currently within the public domain, and using volunteers, creates audiobooks of those public domain works. The volunteers then donate the audiobooks into the public domain, and all LibriVox recordings state specifically that they are in the public domain. Many of the books, plays and poems used by volunteers with LibriVox come from Project Gutenberg, a website that creates e-books from documents in the public domain.
Unfortunately, even public domain works are confusing, because copyright has changed so much in the last hundred or so years. Project Gutenberg is based solely in the U.S. and they do not guarantee that their books are in the public domain outside of the United States. The explanation for books in the public works that Project Gutenberg uses can be found here.
Bottom line is, understand copyright law before you use someone else’s work. If you don’t understand it, and you plan on using someone else’s work, get help from an expert who can give you the advice you need. But you also need to know your rights because anything that you create is also copyrighted. Today, copyright is implicit, you don’t even need to have a copyright notice on a document to hold a copyright. So when someone uses your creation without your permission, you may have legal rights that you can pursue.