As a professional writer, copyright law is of particular interest to me. Not because enforcing copyrights is a 24/7 job (actually it is), but rather because it is the concept of copyright, and its application to works of art, including writing, that make it illegal for anyone to rip off the things that writers write. If you want to write professionally, this is important, because otherwise anyone could take whatever you write for free, and free don’t pay the mortgage, as they say.
Not that that stops everyone. Especially when it comes to the online world, writers need to stop people from stealing their content.
Unfortunately, it seems that no area of the law attracts more armchair lawyers than copyright law. Check out any writing forum, writers group, or webpage about writing, and sooner or later, you’ll see Joe Writer turn into Joe Writer Expert in Copyright Law. Maybe he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
Copyright law is actually very complex. It can also be very arcane. That is because copyright and other forms of intellectual property law were actually included from the very beginnings of the United States of America, which co-opted a great deal of English Common Law into its first legal codes. So, in some ways, copyright law is older than America itself. As you can imagine, that can make it tough to apply everything to modern times.
What makes it even more complicated is that while the actual copyright laws span volumes of books, the majority of how copyright law works is actually created and enforced via case law, which is the how the laws grow to be applied to a constantly evolving world via court rulings and subsequent reliance upon those earlier rulings (known as precedent) by courts in future copyright cases. In other words, even if you read and understood every word of copyright law as published, you STILL wouldn’t understand copyright law worth a darn.
Ironically, most people can’t even grasp the published law as demonstrated by a fun article on ARS Technica about how you can’t have a Superbowl party with a television bigger than 55 inches.
This article should be required reading for anyone looking to spout off about how copyright law works. In it, the author notes how a friend determined that using a TV bigger than 55″ to display the Superbowl or other programming violates copyright law, by saying, “It’s in there.”
Copyright Law Is Complicated
The law is all about context, pulling out a single sentence is bound to produce all manner of legalistic junk. In this case, while the sentence is indeed, “in there,” it also not applicable to private viewings because of other sections of the law.
A good way to understand it is to think of the law like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, those books where you read along and then either go to page 124 if you want to go left, or go to page 187 if you want to go right. By choosing to go right, you never read page 124; whatever is on that page never happens in your reading of the book. Similarly, as you go through the copyright laws, you come to a page that says if you are having a private showing in your own home go to page 22,820. If not, then go to page 13,283. The sentence that is “in there” is only there if you go to page 13,283. If you go to page 22,820 (private showing), that line never comes up.
Ah, nothing like a quick bit of pontification on a Monday morning. Cheers.