Copyright is for losersMy recent experiences with music copyright, and how it seems to make everyones life that little bit harder, made me question what copyright is all about.

I decided to look around at how copyright works and how it is being used. Along the way I came across some interesting points that made me dig a little deeper.

I hope to soon be creating various types on material in the hope of earning a living. Before I get started I wanted to put some thought into how to license my content.

‘As I am not a big corporation how does copyright affect my work?’ That is the question that I asked myself.


The original basis for copyright, as far as I understand it, was simply to protect the author or artist from someone blatantly stealing their work and passing it off as their own.

This has been extended over time to protect the rights of the creator to restrict the way their work can be used for a specified amount of time. This period of time has been extended quite dramatically over the years. Here in the UK the majority of works, depending on the medium of the work, are covered for 70 years after the death of the last author.

The restrictions cover everything from copying, printing, performing, lending, broadcasting as well as any adaptation or derivative work. The creator then gets exclusive rights over how their work is to be distributed and to any income to be made.

Something that surprised me was that copyright seems to be granted automatically. Basically any content, that takes some effort to produce, will have copyright applied even if there is no mention of copyright anywhere on the work. I was, mistakenly, under the impression that you had to mark your work to receive copyright protection.

But what if the creator doesn’t want these automatic restrictions applied to their work?

This is the question that piqued my interest. I will explain why shortly.

My Research

I recently read Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig.

A downloadable copy of this book is available for free under a Creative Commons license. Just bear in mind that it can be quite heavy going in places with lots of detail about the legal aspects of the American system of copyright, which is not entirely surprising as it was written by a lawyer.

The book is also available in hard copy, albeit with a different subtitle, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity.

This book shows how the Internet has affected American culture, pushing it towards piracy as the socially accepted norm.

This has forced the big corporations to blindly fight back to protect their copyrighted content using the full extent of the law as these examples from the book show:

  • If you steal a CD in California then the maximum fine is $1,000. If you download a ten-song CD, then you’ll be liable for $1,500,000 in damages. Compare this to a doctor who negligently removes the wrong leg in an operation who would be liable for no more than $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering.
  • Back in 2003, the RIAA sued 261 individuals including a twelve-year-old girl and a seventy-year-old man who had no idea what file sharing was. The twelve-year-old paid her life savings of $2,000 to settle the case.

While explaining the reasons behind this battle there are some very insightful examples of how copyright affects different groups of people, and how the laws have changed over time.

I have also just finished reading Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine, which is more from the economics point of view. This book can also be pretty heavy going in places and some of the examples overlap with Free Culture a bit but there are a lot of new points of view raised.

An example that resonated for me from this book was to do with the huge cost for music and video clip rights. Tarnation, a documentary film created by Jonathan Caouette, cost just £124 to make. Once the rights for the music and video clips were cleared this cost rose to about £230,000…

Just in case you are interested this book is also available in a hard copy as well, Against Intellectual Monopoly.

I have also been reading through some of the information made available by the UK Copyright Service including the Intellectual property guide.

Relinquishing Rights

OK so how does any of this affect me?

As an example say I create a song—don’t worry I have no intention of actually doing this.

I then decide to sell the song in MP3 format. If someone likes some section of the song they might want to take part of it and use it in some creation of their own, like a video for example.

What if you have no intention of making any money or no real reason to protect the copyright. Should someone else be allowed to use this material within their projects or create adaptations of the original? Should they be allowed to make money from these derivative works?

In my opinion, as long as they are not selling a copy of the MP3 in direct competition to my original this should not harm to the sales of my song. If anything it may help increase awareness of the song and possibly even lead to more sales.

Whether or not the derivative work is going to receive any money you may want to charge the person who intends to use a part of your work.  The user would then have to contact you, the copyright owner, and ask for permission before a price could be agreed upon.

This is fine as long as it is obvious who owns the copyright of the work. Then there must be some sort of link back to the copyright owner along with a simple and reliable way to contact them.

This is where things tend to break down. If there is no easy way to find and contact you, as the copyright owner, then there is no way for you to make any income from sampling of your content.

Does this mean that no-one should be able to legally make use of your work?

There is of course the possibility that someone is going to just go ahead and use the content without asking anyway. Although this is morally wrong is it really worth spending time tracking down every minor infringement…

There are 2 ways to approach this:

  • Make it simple for people to contact you and request permission.
  • Forget about trying to make this additional income and relinquish your rights, allowing other people to include parts of your content in their work.

Choosing which is a bit of a balancing act.

Allowing free (as in freedom) use of your content makes it harder to make money but can easily reach a much wider audience. Restricting access to your work can make it easier to control income but this also likely to reduce the audience which will reduce the number of sales.

To Be Continued

This post has become too big to digest in one go so I have had to break it out into two parts. I have left this initial article as a collection of the basic background copyright information that I have come across.

This can then be used to help me decide how to apply licenses to any work I may create.

My conclusions and any decisions I have made regarding licensing will be aired in the near future.

Image: Creative Commons License



Wow very intense

    Pete O'Shea

    Hi gorgeous,

    Yeah I know. I got wrapped up in the details a bit, and spent a bit longer reading the background information than I expected…

    Don’t worry though not many posts are going to be that intense.


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