Artemy Lebedev

§ 14. The authorship conundrum

October 29, 1998

Today’s discussion topic is copyright in the web. The topic is just as provocative as unknown for most folks.

Copyright issues have given rise to articles and theses, many-page laws and bylaws, all premised upon a simple assertion that every single thing in the world has an author. There’s somebody standing behind any text, picture, squiggle or ditty. Simultaneously with the creation of work, its creator obtains the copyright in the work of authorship. This right cannot be taken away, bought, granted or sold: it would be the same as saying that your soul is not yours.

Obiter dictum

For sake of brevity, we will skip such concepts as “collective author,” a “work made for hire,” and others. We will also pass over a slew of niceties providing ample fodder for lawyers specializing in copyright.

In the event the work is sold, it’s not about selling copyright, but basically the right to use the work. Say if a designer makes a logo for company N, he still retains the copyright in the logo picture. Company N may purchase the right to use the logo from the designer along with his agreement not to sell this logo to a host of other companies.

Obiter dictum

Even if we have to deal with a situation when the author opts to sell exclusive rights for use of his work, he can always use it, for example, in his portfolio or collected works. Otherwise anyone could display other people’s works as one’s own, claiming authorship.

The © symbol has begotten a great many myths. The fact that the work does not bear the copyright symbol leads many to believe that the work may be used in the entire variety of ways: reprinted, resold, stolen etc. This is not the case. Broadly speaking, one does not have to use identification signs at all. There is no specific standard of their use either. One may write “Copyright is the Property of Joe Dumpkin” or “Copyright Joe Dumpkin,” or write nothing at all. The © sign is depicted to scare one off, or indicate the owner of the rights, as a reminder, or as an advertisement—just anything. If Joe is the author, then copyright belongs to him.

Apart from barefaced stealing, another case of copyright breach is a ripoff (or cloning) when a copycat takes the basic idea, interior or a solution and mimics it with minimal deviation from the original.

Living examples are exhibited in the “Clone Museum

With a parody or fair use, it’s quite a different story. There should be a reasonable limit to the volume of the work of authorship used. Say if you take the whole of “The Green Mile” and change its name to “The Goon from the Moon,” then it’s neither a parody nor fair use.

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