Five Persistent Myths About Copyright


Five Persistent Myths About Copyright
by Susan Basko, esq.

There is a set of 5 myths about copyright that persist and seem to be spreading via the internet. Always keep in mind that Copyright has to do with the "Right to Copy."  The person who makes a creative, original work and sets it into tangible form (such as writing, drawing, recording) is (almost always) the one that owns the copyright and is the one that has the right to copy it and to decide if anyone else gets to copy it or use it.

Translation: Copyright = the Right to Copy.

 Here are some of the most common folkloric falsehoods about copyright law:

MYTH #1: If it's on the internet, it's in the public domain.  FALSE.  This is a very common idea that actually makes no sense.  Creative works enter the public domain after copyright wears out because of passage of time, which under current law, is the life of the creator plus 70 years after their death.  While there are works of art and music and writing that are on the internet that are in the public domain, such as pictures of very old paintings and old classical or folk music, anything that was created within the past 70 years cannot possibly be in the public domain.  Putting something onto the internet might be a means of "publishing" the work, as defined in copyright law, but it has nothing to do with public domain.

Translation: Just because it's on the internet does not give anyone else the right to use it.

MYTH #2: If you buy a work of art, you can do whatever you want with it.  FALSE.  No, not if it is painting, drawing, print, sculpture or still photograph that is a single piece made for exhibition or in an edition of 200 or fewer signed and numbered copies.  A 1990 law called VARA or Visual Artists Rights Act creates a sort of caretaker stewardship in any owner of such an art work, and allows the creator these rights:

  • right to claim authorship
  • right to prevent the use of one's name on any work the author did not create
  • right to prevent use of one's name on any work that has been distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation
  • right to prevent distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the author's honor or reputation
A more famous artist can prevent the destruction of an art work they have created.  Under this law, in 2018, a court awarded $6.7 million dollars to a group of 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed by a building developer.  Their graffiti art was painted onto a New York City building called 5 Pointz that had been artist studios for many years.  When the developer demolished the building to build condos, he destroyed their graffiti art work, in violation of the VARA law.

Translation: If you own a work of fine art, you are its caretaker and there are laws about what you can and cannot do with the art.

MYTH #3. If you take someone else's art work and change it 10%, it becomes yours and you can claim it as your own.  FALSE.  If you take someone else's art work and make changes to it, you are creating a DERIVATIVE WORK, and you need permission from the artist/ copyright owner of the original work to do that.  Creating a derivative work without permission from the copyright owner of the work you are riffing off is copyright infringement and can cost you $150,000 in statutory damages.

Translation: Stealing art is stealing art, even if you change it a bit.

MYTH #4. If you use someone else's work but do not make any money, it's okay. FALSE.  Copying someone else's creative work is copyright violation, whether the infringer makes money or not.  When an art work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the artist may get statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit.  Statutory damages on copyright are very high -- about $150,000, even if the artist cannot prove damages.  This is supposed to act as a deterrent to keep people from infringing copyright.  Writing apologies or notices such as, "No copyright infringement intended," has no legal effect, though it might make the copyright owner dislike you less.

Translation:  Even if you do not make any money by using someone else's copyright registered work, you might end out owing them $150,000 in statutory damages.

MYTH #5.  It's okay to use someone else's art because:  they'll never find out, there is nothing they can do, copyright lawsuits are too expensive, I'm on the other side of the world, I got hired by a company to do this, I feel like this art should belong to everyone. FALSE.  Most artists have fans and friends who will rush to tell them if they see someone stealing their art.  Googling images also makes it easy to find stolen art and counterfeits.  Copyright lawsuits are very expensive, but there is a whole array of other remedies that cost nothing other than time, including having your products removed off Amazon and Etsy and other sites, having your pictures removed off Facebook and imgur, having your products removed out of physical stores and markets, causing your links to go dead on Youtube product and unboxing videos, removing your products and store off printing sites.  Amazon and other sites got a lot more cautious about hosting and selling stolen art and counterfeit goods after several high profile lawsuits cost them tons of money.  If you expect Amazon to collude with you in your sale of shirts and posters adorned with counterfeit art, think again, because that jig is up.

Translation: If you're thinking of stealing art, think again.

If this has been helpful for you, feel free to drop me an email at suebaskomusic@gmail.com