Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.
Despite the fact digital and new media have been around for over a decade, in the grand scheme of things they’re still a very new frontier and as a result, copyright mistakes happen frequently and often. Most of them stem from a misunderstanding (or a flat out lack of education) about how copyright affects digital media. But it’s thanks to digital media that so many of us are getting an education in how copyright really works at all.
Why is digital media such a thorn in copyright’s side? Remember that copyright is assigned at the moment an artifact becomes tangible. Digital artifacts never really become “tangible”. We can hold printed versions of online material. We can hold artifacts that house this material. But we cannot actually hold the material itself. Digital media never achieves a tangible form. In 1976, the copyright law was modified to accommodate other non-tangible artifacts, namely broadcast media, movies, and music, by adding the condition “fixed”. So, for the last almost forty years, the moment something is fixed, or set into a given medium, it gains copyright protection. The precedent was there to extend the same rights to digital media, but it took longer for non-technical governing bodies to wrap their mind around the idea that fixing something in bytes wasn’t much different than fixing it in celluloid. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998, when the highly abused, highly controversial DMCA was signed into law, that digital artifacts gained the same status as broadcast media, movies, and music and were guaranteed copyright protection.
Ideally, that should have been that. The five rights granted to non-digital creators were extended to digital creators. Done.
Not so done. While the law exists to protect digital media, none of us is born with that knowledge and for some reason we’re reluctant to teach it beyond a “Don’t plagiarize Wikipedia” lecture in English and history classes. Outside the classroom, copyright education seems to come when someone gets caught violating someone else’s copyright, and even then we don’t turn it into the learning moment it needs to be. That’s not entirely helpful. I will never forget working with a high school student one day, who told me she had copied information from the internet because it’s public information. I had to explain to her the difference between public domain (an aspect of copyright we’ll get into later on in this series) and publicly accessible. It was difficult for her to wrap her mind around, and she was an intelligent kid, because she had never been exposed to that before.
Even in the public domain narration work I’m doing, there are adults who don’t understand that difference and find themselves challenged when they try to perform something that is protected by someone else’s copyright. Pinterest users also get friendly little reminders periodically when they pin something a copyright holder would prefer not be shared through any site they cannot personally control. Pinterest is pretty good about honoring the copyright holder’s request and gently reminding users who have the pin to respect copyright.
What’s important here is to remember that digital artifacts are considered “fixed” and therefore have copyright protection, even if the copyright symbol is not visible. That means you cannot legally distribute, perform, copy, or create derivative works from a digital artifact digitally or otherwise without the copyright holder’s permission. It also means that you cannot legally take a non-digital artifact and recreate and distribute it digitally. If it’s not yours, keep your life simple and don’t copy or share without permission.