Copyright has been in the news recently thanks to an incident in which a profit-making magazine reprinted an article they found on the internet without the authors permission. (No, I’m not linking. They’ve had enough publicity for their nefarious deeds.)
When the author challenged the editor, the response included what seems to be a common misunderstanding — the internet is public domain.
This is bullshit. I don’t care how many people believe it’s true. It is not.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. What follows is my understanding of the legal principles involved. I provide them in good faith. But you should seek legal advice regarding any actual intellectual property issues you might be facing.
Copyright is inherent
As soon as you write something down, you have it.
This right is what allows you, as the author (or photographer, or artist) to make decisions about what to do with your words/photographs/paintings.
Whether or not you make any explicit statement about the copyright, all of your writing/photographs/artworks are copyright with all rights reserved to you.
That means anything written on a blog, in a conference paper, in knitting instructions, posted on Flickr or other photosharing site, or whatever is copyright unless explicitly stated otherwise. (Not the ideas, the actual words, pictures, or whatever you use to express them.)
In some circumstances you are advised to register your copyright. Whether you do this or not, you still have it. Registering it just a process that makes it easier to prove later if you have to go to court to deal with an infringement. Talk to a lawyer if you have material you think you need to do this for.
You can assign it
Because you already have copyright in your written works, you can assign some of those rights to others, if you wish.
Most publishers require you to do this. This enables them to deal with infringements on your behalf. It also enables them to realize the financial value of your written work by having an exclusive right to use that material (in some markets, depending on what rights you assigned).
You can license it
The Creative Commons is a license, or rather a series of licenses. In order to license your work, you must have the copyright to begin with.
One of your options is to license your work (writing, photographs, paintings) for specific uses under specific conditions. This means that each time someone wants to use your work for that kind of purpose, they don’t have to ask you as you have already granted permission.
There are a range of Creative Commons licenses which enable you to decide the level of free use you want to grant. So you can decide whether commercial uses are allowed, for example. Or whether people can modify your work as part of a new creation of their own.
You can give permission for specific uses
Regardless of whether you put a Creative Commons license on your work, you can always grant permission on a case by case basis. Depending on the circumstances you might want to have a formal agreement or you might do this more informally.
If you want to use an image in a presentation, for example, that does not have a Creative Commons license, there is no reason not to ask the photographer for permission.
If your academic work involves the analysis of images or texts that you want to reproduce in your own published articles (e.g. images of an advertisement that you discuss), you will need to request permission from the copyright holder before your article can be published.
It seems reasonable for authors to be concerned about their reputation, and thus the context in which their work will be used, though academic critique does not usually constitute a threat to reputation.
It is also reasonable, as an author or creator, to ask for financial compensation if the use of the work is in a commercial context.
Of course, if you just want to quote a snippet of something, asking for permission seems a bit crazy. Similarly, if you are reviewing a book and need to refer to particular passages.
For this, there is the legal concept of “fair use”. You can look up the details. The principles are that you are not substantially reproducing the work. Respect the author’s rights.
Most authors are not money-grubbing hoarders. If you aren’t sure, just ask them.
Copyright expires. Not immediately on your death (which is why you need to name a literary/artistic executor in your will) but some years afterwards. The exact number of years has changed a few times but you can check.
This means that Shakespeare’s plays are no longer under copyright and can be performed without paying royalties, for example.
The term “public domain” in the legal sense refers to these works where the copyright has expired.
Copyright is what allows you to share
The fact that you have the rights in your own work allows you to retain control over the conditions in which your work is shared.
It also enables you to make a living from your writing/art.
Freelance writers, artists, musicians, etc. rely on copyright to enable them to earn a living through creating work.
Those who are paid a salary to create also depend on the exclusive assignment of their copyright to their employers (or, in some cases, of the contractual agreement that the copyright for what they create for their employers is held by their employers).
Money is the primary way that we indicate value in our (capitalist) society. Your creative work has value.
Be careful what you wish for
While there is much to criticize in the ways that large publishing corporations use copyright to exploit the work of authors to make profits, you do not want to give up your inherent right to copyright in your own creative works.
There are legitimate issues about the communication of research results given that publishers are private companies that need to make money from the sale of books, academic journals, etc. This does not make copyright itself a problem.
While you may prefer not to think about the financial aspects of higher education, it is also true that universities are paid to teach people (either in direct tuition fees, or in public grants, or in charitable donations to enable these activities to take place; usually a combination of all three). It is thus reasonable for authors/publishers to ask for financial recompense for the use of materials they create.
Most countries have a mechanism for distributing fees paid for copyright licenses to be distributed to authors. The same mechanism will be used to distribute monies collected for public lending right. You need to register with a society of authors or whatever agency is responsible in a particular country.