Before I get into my topic on fair use and copyright, let me tell you a story.
Just before my second trimester in a school I was in, a department head told me that I’ll be teaching a new subject. I thought I heard him right so I said, “Oh, copywriting. Okay, I’m in.” Weeks later that I realized that the new subject I was about to teach was “Copyright Laws“.
Anyway, I taught “Copyright Laws and Multimedia Arts Ethics” for a trimester and it was a good learning experience for both me and for my students. We tackled fair use which is today’s topic.
It is okay to quote a few lines from a novel just as long as you are within the context of fair use. But before we discuss fair use, let’s start with the basics of copyright.
Copyright laws were created to promote the progress of arts and sciences. These laws protect the original works of inventors, authors, artists, and other “creatives”. These also covers the exclusive rights to copy, to adapt, to display or perform, and to control the first sale of their works to the public.
Once a person fixes an original expression of an idea in a tangible form, that person can claim copyright in the work but with certain limitations.
- Copyright only protects the form of expression but not the ideas. Therefore, an idea like a love story of a cat and a dog may have different forms of expression. One author may express it in a short story. Another creative may express it in a song. And another artist may express it in a comic book. So you cannot just say, “Hey, someone stole my idea!” unless you have put that idea on a tangible format.
- The copyright owner controls public but not private displays or performances. Therefore, anything you use at a personal level like singing in the bathroom, or sharing a book to your child does not constitute copyright infringement. But if you perform or display it publicly for financial income purposes, then you have to ask permission to use the copyrighted material first.
- The copyright owner controls the first sale but not the subsequent sales of each copy of the work. Writers need to understand this part. Selling your work to a publisher already gives that publisher the right to sell and gain income from the sale of your work. Unless specified in the sales contract, you may or may not receive anything else.
- Copyright usually lasts for 50 years, and once the 50 years has lapsed, the work becomes a public domain. But not all works past the 50 years mark are public domain. Heirs of authors or other creatives might have taken over the copyright of the author’s works. So check it out first.
- The copyright owner’s rights are limited by the “fair use” doctrine.
The fair use of copyrighted works includes reproduction in copies, mostly in part, for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, or research, and is not an infringement of copyright.
FACTORS TO BE CONSIDERED IN FAIR USE
- Purpose and character. If the purpose of copying the work in part is for non-commercial research, for educational purposes, for critique, and for news reporting, then the act is considered fair use.
- Nature of the copyrighted work. Non-fiction works like science and history may receive less protection than fictional works because facts need not be copyrighted. For fiction, quoting for the purpose of book review is generally fair provided the amount taken is reasonable.
- The amount and substance of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole. Take into consideration the quality and the quantity of the words taken from the work. If the “heart” of the work or its full context was taken, this is not fair use even if the number of words copied are few.
- The effect on the market. The degree of fair use now depends on the impact of the new use on the original work. If the use is minimal and for a valid purpose, then the author of the original work may consider it fair. But with today’s social media, it’s easy to know the impact. People who are active on the Internet can easily tag a work as “plagiarized” if they know something about the original work.
It’s easy to say that your work is “inspired from” another. But it’s difficult if you’re accused of plagiarism.
PUTTING FAIR USE TO WORK
- Always remember that ideas, themes, and facts are not copyrighted. However, events in a fictional work should not be taken as facts.
- And if getting a permission to quote is something practical on your part, better get it from the author.
- Play safe by quoting as little as possible. It is safe to quote up to 10 percent of the work or less.
- Do not quote or use the “heart” of the original work or its full context.
- Refrain from substituting the original words and pass it as something new.
- As much as possible, keep the borrowed portion insignificant or undetectable.
THE POOR MAN’S COPYRIGHT
This is a simple procedure to prove that you own a piece of original work. All you have to do is mail your manuscript to yourself. The date and time stamp on when it was sent and received serves as the copyright date. However, this process may not be accepted in other countries. I suggest that you file your copyright to proper government agencies in your area.
SONGS ARE TRICKY
Unlike novels, quoting a line of a song can be tricky especially if you want to use it in your novel. To be on the safe side, ask around or consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property or copyright laws. If you can’t afford to pay for the rights, your next best bet is to compose a song.