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FutureU's Guide to
Copyright and Public Domain On the Internet

By Chris Mays, Gail Terry Grimes and Claude Whitmyer
Copyright © 1997-2004 by the Authors. All rights reserved. Published by FutureU.

Copyright and intellectual property laws governing printed material exist to make sure that publishers and authors get a fair return on their investment. The doctrines of first sale and fair use allow librarians to extract information from books for catalogs, bibliographies, abstracts and other reference materials and for students and teachers to study these materials but not reproduce them without permission.

As for theft, the same legal protections exist on the Internet as in the real world. If someone catches you stealing their work, they may prosecute. However, the temptation to steal is apparently far greater in cyberspace, and the task of guarding a work from piracy far greater still. In the electronic environment, every copy is a perfect copy, indistinguishable from its original and extremely easy to reproduce—in private, with no one watching. By contrast, no respectable photocopy store will make photocopies for you of an entire book or anything else that appears to have a copyright.

Because there is no Internet police force, words, images, software code, even entire product ideas are stolen every day and no one does anything about it. Combine the ease of duplication with the instantaneous distribution available through the Internet, and an entire manuscript or electronic book can proliferate all over the world in moments without any fair return to the owners for the value of their intellectual property. The point is not to help authors make money; the point is fairness.

It is the opportunity and responsibility of everyone using the Internet to act ethically in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of law. The safe thing for all concerned is to commit to the protection of our own and others’ intellectual property rights. If we respect each other's intellectual property rights we ensure mutual benefit from the expansion of knowledge within our society.

People who work on salary or courtesy of a grant or trust fund may be less concerned about intellectual property rights than people who must earn a living from their creative output. Respect for intellectual property affirms the collaborative spirit of the Internet while making it possible for free agents to contribute to the Web in ways they couldn't otherwise afford to do.

Online theft happens every day with software, and it a nightmare for publishers and their lawyers, who have proposed changes to the various copyright laws and treaties. So far, however, the U.S. Congress and international lawmakers have declined to ratify any changes, and no legal or practical technical solution to the controversy is in sight. Online, prevention is all on the author's and the user's shoulders. It's up to all of us to do the right thing.

Although writers are understandably sensitive to the threat, many of them see the Internet as an opportunity to broaden their audience and experiment with new forms of self-publishing that could ultimately increase their clout with traditional publishers, distributors and booksellers. Some progressive publishers and hopeful authors even offer parts of books, periodicals, and databases online as loss leaders to encourage purchasing or subscribing to full services. This is good news for students and teachers.

At the same time, smart scholars are careful to cite all references and get permission where appropriate. The law says you may lift a quotation of up to 250 words without permission. When it comes to longer documents, however, you should only reproduce and distribute them without permission if they are in the public domain.

Public Domain. Here are the rules for determining when a document enters the public domain:

Please Note: This information is not meant to be a substitute for legal or professional advice. It is the reader's responsibility to verify that the facts and general advice here and elsewhere in this eBook apply.

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Copyright © 1997-2004 by Gail Terry Grimes and Claude Whitmyer. All rights reserved. Published by FutureU.

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