Q&A: Copyrights and Intellectual Property

Q&A: Copyrights and Intellectual Property

Posted in:

Q. With content available just few keystrokes away via your favorite internet search engine, what is a Christian's response to the protection and misuse of intellectual property?

A. We see the word copyright and hear it spoken everywhere. It's referenced in print, on web sites, on music labels and movies, and in all types of content worldwide.

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright and what it protects as "a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. It is a form of intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed."

Copyrighted content can be found on web sites and in all types of printed materials, artistic forms, and media formats. We've become so accustomed to accessing and excerpting information and content from multiple sources that we often don't even think about who owns the content and what we have the right to use. Sadly, some don't even care. But it is important to remember that just because you have access to something doesn't mean you have the right to use it.

So how do we know what content can be used? Most copyright holders provide the information we need to contact them for permission to use their works. Access to companies, publishers, and authors or artists through their web sites has made this even easier. Also, the U. S. Copyright Office web site at www.copyright.gov provides an overview of copyrights, a list of frequently asked questions, and the laws related to copyright, including how the U.S. copyright laws are reciprocal in other countries.

What about content in the public domain? The chart found at http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm can be very helpful to you as you determine whether the content you want to use is in the public domain. But, there are two absolutes regarding public domain:
1. Any work first published in the U.S. prior to 1923 is in the public domain.
2. Works prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of that person's official duties are in the public domain.

Once we have confirmed that the content we want to use is in the public domain, it may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. However, it is generally courteous to give credit to the original creator of the work.

Here are a few things to think about when deciding to quote an author, copy an image, share a digital file, or any one of the many ways we might choose to utilize a copyright holder's content:

  • Recognize that copyright laws were created to allow people the right to protect their property-to earn a living from the use and sharing of their creative gifts. We wouldn't take something from a store or someone's home that does not belong to us. In the same way, we should not presume that content (i.e., words, music, films, and so forth) are available for our use in any way we choose without purchase or permission.


  • That book, music, film, software, and so on that we purchase, regardless of the format, is simply the container for the content. We can own the container but do not have the right to use its contents any way we like.


  • If it's not your original creation and not in the public domain then you don't have the right to use it, quote it, or copy it unless you have permission from the copyright holder.


  • When in doubt, ask.

Holiness Today, November-December 2010