Copyright: An Overview of the Basics

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

Between narrating public domain audiobooks, reading fan fiction, and just creating and publishing work on internationally available platforms, I have some experience dealing with copyright. Experience I find myself sharing regularly. So, I thought I’d make my life easier, and just create a series of blog posts sharing what I know (or am aware of, in some cases) about different aspects of copyright. But it turns out there are a lot more facets to copyright than I thought when I first sat down to work on this series, so…this is going to take a while. If it helps people better understand copyright, and what their rights are as creator, remixer, or consumer, then it’ll be worth it.

Since we’re at the beginning, though, why don’t we start with the basic question: What is copyright?

Copyright is essentially a legal protection extended to creations that lays out a specific set of rights for creators. Copyright is conferred on a creation when it is fixed in a tangible form, and remains for a period laid out by copyright law at the time the creation came into existence. (This is the single most challenging aspect of copyright, because the laws have changed quite a bit over the last century. At the time that I’m writing this, copyright lasts for the duration of the creator’s lifetime, plus ninety years.) A creation’s copyright exists, regardless of whether or not the copyright symbol is visible.

Under current copyright law, a creator (or copyright owner, if it isn’t the creator) has the exclusive right to make copies of the work, to make derivative copies, to distribute the work (original, copy, or derivative), and to perform or display the work. If you are not the copyright holder and you do anything on that list, you have violated the copyright and may or may not be in for a world of legal hurt. Some creators take copyright violation very seriously.

Over the next several posts, we’ll get more into various aspects of copyright, including ways to work legally with a copyrighted work, how copyright affects digital media, and how copyright affects international distribution of material.

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