Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Copyright: In, Out, and Upside Down

By Krista Magrowski

“Print a copy and mail it to yourself.”

“Email yourself a copy.”

“I just run a small blog. I don’t need to worry about using someone else’s artwork. No one will care.”

As a writer or other artist, do any of these sound familiar? Does the ever-changing world of copyright law have your head spinning? Are you unsure when your work is protected?
Yes, yes, and yes were the answers we heard from our members whenever the subject came up. Copyright (the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same) is complex, full of nuances and little-known facts. But as an artist you want to protect your work, AND you also want to protect yourself by not infringing on someone else’s copyright. After all, fair is fair.

At the January South Jersey Writers’ Group meeting, Gregg Feistman, Temple University associate professor, provided the group with an educational - and entertaining! - introduction to copyright law and what it means to an artist. The group also live tweeted the meeting so we could share some of the juicy tidbits (hey, we are writers!) with our Twitter followers.

Some of the topics we discussed were the duration of protection under copyright, defamation (did you know that this now covers both libel and slander since the distinction between the two is being blurred with the rise of the internet?), fair common, fair use, trademarks, fan fiction, invasion of privacy, and parody and satire.

When including name brands, lyrics, poetry, or anything written by someone else, or using a photo, you must have permission unless the item in question is in public domain. In some cases, attribution may be enough especially if you are using a photo for your blog, for which you do not make money. Check the artist's website or even just email the artist and ask. If you are buying rights (a photo, a video, etc.) always use a reputable site. We learned of a writer buying rights to a video and then finding herself under fire when the site she hosted it on received a complaint. The site ruled against her even though she had bought what she thought were the rights to the piece.

FUN FACT: Until the fall of 2015, the song Happy Birthday was protected under copyright (which is why restaurants never sang that particular song when they brought out your sombrero of shame and sparkler-topped sundae and you melted in your seat as your family and friends mocked your embarrassment... oh… sorry about that. Flashback).

In addition to Gregg’s presentation, many of our members had some great advice to give their fellow writers when the inevitable questions arose. I believe the words “literal douchebag” were actually uttered at some point during the defamation discussion. Nothing is sacred at our meetings, where we encourage and foster a safe space for creativity and what is said in meeting, stays in meeting. Unless of course the SJWG president writes about it on the group blog.

One takeaway we all got from the meeting is that we only touched the tip of the proverbial copyright iceberg. Always seek the advice of a professional if you have a question and do not take advice from a random internet commenter on this. I have seen plenty of incorrect advice out there. Also, give credit where credit is due (bloggers take note when using pictures found on the internet - pay for images, use public domain/royalty free images, or your own images).

By the way, you can mail/email yourself a copy of your work, but that would only provide limited protection and would not be valid should you try to file a copyright infringement suit.


Gregg Feistman is an Associate Professor of Instruction of Public Relations at Temple University. He teaches writing and strategic planning in the undergraduate program and courses in the Master’s of Science in Communications Management programs. His particular area of interest is Reputation Management and Crisis Communication. He is also the faculty advisor to Temple’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter - one of the top ten in the country - and its student-run PR firm, PRowl Public Relations.


  1. Thanks. Great post that's fun to read.

  2. Wonderful information here and always great camaraderie at South Jersey Writers meetings. Thanks, everyone!


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