Copyright 101

The laws not the bandSo recently I have been put in a situation where I am forced to think about copyrights (the law not the band). Despite my personal resistance to the field it’s probably a good thing to have a good grasp of. Here is an overview of some general principles worth knowing.

Who owns the copyright?

Generally speaking, the person the work is attributed to owns the copyright. This applies to anybody who created the work (self-publishers, contractors etc) with exception to employees. In the case of an employee, the company they work for owns the copyright of any work done while working at the company.

What is shared copyright ownership?

Multiple people can own a copyright. Unless otherwise specified in writing any work contributed collaboratively is owned equally by all who contributed regardless of the amount they contributed. For example all the members of band collectively working on a song own equal shares to that song’s copyright. Generally speaking shared copyrights usually share equally in profits from any sales of the work. We see this all the time in the music industry.

What is copyleft?

Copyleft is a term originally coined by Richard Stallman and is used to describe copyright laws that ensure the right of individuals to modify, share and distribute copyrighted material, and to ensure that future versions of work be free to modify, share and distribute as well.

Are all copyright licenses compatible with each other?

No. There are many licenses that are incompatible with each other. It is a good idea to do some research before choosing a copyright license for any work you do. Some people prefer licenses that protect the work, and other people prefer licenses that protect the end users’ rights to access, modify and redistribute the work (aka copyleft licenses). Broadly speaking those two kinds of licenses are incompatible with one another.

There are also licenses like the GNU GPL that are copyleft licenses but are incompatible with many other copyleft licenses as it imposes the restriction that all resulting copies be bound by the GNU GPL license.

Final thoughts

There are many streams of philosophy and ideals surrounding copyright law that are good to take into consideration when choosing your copyright practices. If you are only just starting to learn copyright law it can seem a bit overwhelming. However, there are a lot of great resources that help to explain a lot of the different concepts. If you are an expert in the field and have something you want to add please post it in the comments.

For further reading.

Wikipedia article on copyright http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright

Wikipedia article on BSD License  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BSD_licenses

Creative Commons License choosing tool http://creativecommons.org/choose/

GNU free copyright philosophy http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html

 

I help people build better web apps and make a difference in the world. I enjoy sharing what I am learning and find interesting. I live on the Left Coast of Canada with my wife. Follow me on Twitter.

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