By Claude Whitmyer, founder  of MeaningfulWork.Com, co-founder of The University of the Future, LLC (FutureU™)

Why Are "Copyright" and "Intellectual Property Rights" Important?

Please Note: This information is not meant to be a substitute for legal or professional advice. It is the reader’s responsibility to verify that the facts and general advice here and elsewhere on this website apply.

Copyright and intellectual property laws governing printed material exist to make sure that publishers and authors get a fair return on the investments they have made in creating works of art or literature. The doctrines of first sale and fair use allow librarians to extract information from books for catalogs, bibliographies, abstracts and other reference materials and for students and teachers to study these materials but not reproduce them without permission.

As for theft, the same legal protections exist on the Internet as in the real world. If someone catches you stealing their work, they may prosecute. However, the temptation to steal is apparently far greater in cyberspace, and the task of guarding a work from piracy far greater still. In the electronic environment, every copy is a perfect copy, indistinguishable from its original and extremely easy to reproduce—in private, with no one watching. By contrast, no respectable photocopy store will make photocopies for you of an entire book or anything else that appears to have a copyright.

Because there is no Internet police force, words, images, software code, even entire product ideas are stolen every day and no one does anything about it. Combine the ease of duplication with the instantaneous distribution available through the Internet, and an entire manuscript or electronic book can proliferate all over the world in moments without any fair return to the owners for the value of their intellectual property. The point is not to help authors make money; the point is fairness.

It is the opportunity and responsibility of everyone using the Internet to act ethically in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of law. The safe thing for all concerned is to commit to the protection of our own and others’ intellectual property rights. If we respect each other’s intellectual property rights we ensure mutual benefit from the expansion of knowledge within our society.

People who work on salary or courtesy of a grant or trust fund may be less concerned about intellectual property rights than people who must earn a living from their creative output. Respect for intellectual property affirms the collaborative spirit of the Internet while making it possible for free agents to contribute to the Web in ways they couldn’t otherwise afford to do.

Online theft happens every day with software, and it a nightmare for publishers and their lawyers, who have proposed changes to the various copyright laws and treaties. So far, however, the U.S. Congress and international lawmakers have declined to ratify any changes, and no legal or practical technical solution to the controversy is in sight. Online, prevention is all on the author’s and the user’s shoulders. It’s up to all of us to do the right thing.

Although writers are understandably sensitive to the threat, many of them see the Internet as an opportunity to broaden their audience and experiment with new forms of self-publishing that could ultimately increase their clout with traditional publishers, distributors and booksellers. Some progressive publishers and hopeful authors even offer parts of books, periodicals, and databases online as loss leaders to encourage purchasing or subscribing to full services. This is good news for students and teachers.

At the same time, smart scholars are careful to cite all references and get permission where appropriate. The law says you may lift a quotation of up to 250 words without permission. When it comes to longer documents, however, you should only reproduce and distribute them without permission if they are in the public domain.

When Does an Intellectual Property Enter The Public Domain?

Public Domain. Here are the rules for determining when a document enters the public domain:

  1. Under the 1909 U.S. Copyright Act, protection lasted for 28 years and was renewable for another 28 years for a total of 56 years. In 1962, Congress started overhauling the entire Copyright Act, passing interim extensions giving existing works protection for a total term of 75 years. All copyrights in existence in 1962 were extended to at least 1976, when the 75-year rule went into effect. 
  2. In the United States, material first published before January 1, 1978, usually enters the public domain 75 years from the first date of copyright, that is, 75 years from the original date.
  3. Most works created on or after January 1, 1978, enter the public domain 50 years after the death of the author. This rule applies after January 1, 2023.
  4. After January 1, 2053, any work written by a corporate author and originally published on or after January 1, 1978, will enter the public domain 75 years after publication or 100 years after creation, whichever comes first.
  5. Works created before January 1, 1978, but not published before that date are copyrighted under rules 2 and 3 above. 
  6. Any work enters the public domain in the United States if a substantial number of copies were printed and distributed in the U.S. without a copyright notice before March 1, 1989.
  7. Substantially new editions of books, especially new translations or editions created by a new editor, are copyrighted from the creation of that edition, not from the creation of the original.
  8. In the United Kingdom and many other nations, copyrights generally endure for the life of the author plus 50 years.
  9. Libraries must conform to the copyright laws of the nation in which the work will be distributed. For example, at one point Peter Pan was in the public domain in the United States but not in the U.K.; therefore, American libraries could not distribute the book online in Great Britain.
  10. A public speech is copyrighted only if the speaker writes it down, authorizes it to be recorded, or has someone record it at the time it is given. Because Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was written down on paper and registered with the Copyright Office, Mrs. King has been able to forbid its duplication without permission. If you want to tape a speech for distribution (online or off), you will need to obtain copyright clearance from the speaker.

Please Note: This information is not meant to be a substitute for legal or professional advice. It is the reader’s responsibility to verify that the facts and general advice here and elsewhere on this website apply.