Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everything I really need to know about copyright I learned in first grade

This week hasn't been the first time I've seen experienced Wikipedians confuse the difference between republication permission and license release. So at the risk of making this too simple, here's an analogy.

Way back in first grade my crayon box was missing an orange crayon. So when we had a coloring assignment and I needed orange, I asked the girl at the next desk if I could borrow hers. She agreed. When I was done I gave it right back.

The lack of an orange crayon was not an urgent concern to the adults of the surrounding universe, so a couple of days later I asked her and she let me borrow it a second time. This started to become routine. She was quite friendly and always let me borrow her crayon.

Then one day she was away from her desk when I needed the crayon, and rather than walk to the other side of the room and ask yet again I just reached for her supply bin. At this point the teacher intervened and accused me of stealing. I was insulted.

"I'm not stealing. I always use her orange crayon."

"You can't use it unless you get her permission."

"But she always lets me!"

At this point the teacher called to the girl, who immediately granted permission. In addition to the crayon I also got a brief lecture in private property.

She hadn't donated the crayon to me. She hadn't donated it to the whole class. It was still hers and she could keep it for herself if she wanted.

No matter how generous a person or organization is about reuse of their images, the material must be presumed to remain under full copyright unless the owner explicitly changes the license.


Anthony said...

You gave me a twist at the end there. When I read your analogy I thought it was obvious the teacher was being obnoxious. Thinking about it, the analogy is legally flawed in many ways. The crayon was most likely owned by either the girl's parents or the school, and the teacher, not the girl, was the trustee. In any case, if the girl were the owner, and she was allowed to grant license to use the property without the consent of her parents, then I definitely think there would be an implied license granted for the other girl to use the crayon.

Bringing this back to copyright law, which is much different from law over physical property, I agree with you that one does not lose eir copyright by repeatedly granting a permissive license. But there certainly are implied licenses, and there also is fair use.

Lise Broer said...

Actually the school's policy was to require students to supply certain materials, including a set of crayons and a plastic bin to keep the items beneath the child's desk. Obviously the parents had purchased the crayons for her and could regain control of them anytime they liked, but the contents of each bin were treated as that child's property.

Joshua said...

This doesn't deal with how many different copyright issues we actually have on Wikipedia.

For example, there are many images with unclear copyrights where it is likely that it would be impossible to trace the images to their appropriate holder and that if there is a holder they don't even realize they have the rights. This is frequently the case with old pictures taken in the United States for example. If we were to continue your analogy this would be like if one found a crayon on the ground, far from the school, on a busy road, used the crayon briefly and then put it back when one were done.

There is also the similar situation of images that have a high probability of being public domain but we can't prove it.

And if we go over to other Wikimedia projects one has even thornier situations. For example, on the English Wikinews there has been for a long time a policy of keeping all articles archived in a final form so someone can see exactly what that article looked like at the time. Now, some of the older articles had fair use images that were clearly legally fair use but were not strict enough to be fair use under the current Foundation guidelines. The question then becomes should those pictures be deleted even though it will give us an inaccurate archive of our news coverage?

These are but a few of the issues that one can get, and all of them come up even before one starts to think about copyrights in foreign countries. I'm also not going to discuss the issue of whether copyright violation is really akin to stealing(this is a complicated question more so than proponents on either side of that particularly issue would like to admit)

Overall, copyright is a complicated issue. While this post might be a good explanation for why we need to pay attention to copyright it is at best extreme hyperbole to say that this is all one needs to know.

Lise Broer said...

Absolutely, Joshua. Good points. In fact I'll write my next post in relation to one aspect that some of this blog's readers may be able to address.

Chris Watkins said...

Nice analogy, and nice formulation at the end there. I've added a modified version to