Posted on May 31, 2019
May 31 is the anniversary of the first copyright law in the United States.
Signed into law on this date in 1790, the copyright law was mostly copied from Britain's copyright law, the Statute of Anne.
Copyright is a way of protecting "products of the mind" - aka "intellectual property": poems, stories, articles, books, paintings, photographs, drawings, movies, songs, symphonies, choreography, and more. Actually, the Copyright Law of 1790 didn't cover all of these items explicitly, and later copyright laws had to be written to expand protections of all the different sorts of intellectual property.
Copyright is important and good - people who write, make art, compose, and choreograph SHOULD be able to profit from their work and creativity, and should be able to sue if someone blatantly copies their work and sells it as their own.
However, copyright is also a bit confusing...especially as technology has made copying easier and easier. Is it wrong to use someone else's photo in your school report or blog? Are you in legal danger if you xerox a short story and pass out copies to your bookclub? Is it against the copyright law to sample five songs and create a new song from the samples? Is it okay to quote the entirety of a poem as you write a report about it? Is it fine to sing popular songs and then sell your own versions on CDs? Does it harm a photographer if you download one of her photos and then make lots of changes to it before printing T-shirts with the new digital print?
It matters whether or not the copy is being used for commercial purposes. For example, using someone else's poem on a poster you then produce and sell is very different than quoting the poem in a paper for school. Showing some friends a movie at your house is very different than making bootleg copies of the movie that you then sell. Sketching your favorite Disney characters in the privacy of your own home is very different than teaching kids to draw Disney characters within a paid, private art class.
It also matters whether or not the use of the intellectual property is likely to cheat the creator out of possible earnings, or if it is likely to drive more people to know about, care about, and want to buy stuff from the creator. For example, if you decorate mugs with the chorus of a popular song, even if you don't sell the mugs, but instead give them to ten of your friends, you are still denying the songwriter the opportunity to sell his words on a mug to those ten people. And if you claim that you wrote a little known song as you perform it at paid gigs, you are definitely doing wrong to the actual songwriter. On the other hand, if you quote a verse of the little known song on your blog as you rave about how much you like that song, and you include the song title, the name of the singer/songwriter, and a link to purchase the song - well, that's likely to help the songwriter rather than hurt her.
Here is a fascinating fact about copyright: the song considered to be the most widely known in the English-speaking world (and perhaps in the world, period) is "Happy Birthday to You." And even though this super simple song was "written" by unknown folks, possibly children, at least a century ago, it's probably still protected by copyright law!!! Check out the full story here!
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