Computer ArtsNews

Issue 200: Copy and be damned

Plagiarism disputes are nothing new in the design world - here we are discussing them back in issue 1

Following on from Jo Parry's piece about her work being copied, I had a look in the archives and found this piece from issue 1 of Computer Arts on the same subject. Funnily enough it mentions a case from 1994 where a photo library sued Corel over a CG image that clearly drew extensively on a library photo. I did a bit of reading up on it, and found the case cited in online discussions about Shepard Fairey's 'Hope' image, which itself fell foul of an IP infringement claim. Plus a change and all that...
 

Copy and be damned

Image stealing is big business in the digital age. New technologies mean that old notions of copyright have become redundant – or at the very least, unenforceable

Copy and be damned

Everyone does it but they don't like to talk about it. Should you meet someone who says they never do it then you know they're a liar. We aren't talking self abuse here, that's legal, we're talking copyright abuse — stealing other people's creative work and passing it off as your own. You must have done it. Scanned a magazine image, copied one, downloaded one from a Net newsgroup or perhaps you slipped in that photo library image a second time? No one is going to notice after all- are they?

Chances are they won't unless it's a well known image. Copyright law is close to being unenforceable — or as arbitrarily enforced-- as the laws on cannabis. The police do not hunt down those who trade in stolen images, no boys in blue stake out design houses and if you report a copyright infringement to the police nothing will happen. You have to defend your copyright personally — and win or lose you're likely to come out poorer and angrier than when you went in.

The concept of copyright is as simple as its enforcement is impossible. It protects the expression of an author's original work — where original is used in the sense of origin — not new. This definition is important. Copyright doesn't protect an idea, just its execution. You have no copyright until you express an idea in some concrete form.

The form can be a painting, drawing, photograph, electronic file or smears of blood on car panels — if it's an original work then you automatically own the copyright. The standards for originality are extremely low — copyright applies to the drivel you sent your first love and the snaps you took of the resulting children on holiday.

It's all yours. No one can use ten per cent of your image, or five per cent. The law is clear on this. if it's recognisably your work — in whatever form or however altered — your copyright has been infringed. You can demand recompense and if you don't get it you can go to court, internationally. Copy right law effectively dates from the Berne Convention of 1886. The Universal Copyright Convention was written in Geneva in 1952 and heavily revised in 1971. Out of interest, you have fewer rights and countries have fewer duties to authors, under the UCC than under Berne. Not all countries, even now, recognise copyright or subscribe to the Berne conventions, though.

Oddly, when the US became signatories to the updated Berne Convention in 1989. UCC became less important. The full texts, requirements, duties and consequences of copyright law as embodied in the Berne Convention fill tomes, so we aren't going to print it all here.

National law modifies Berne, though it must add rights rather than subtract them. However, what the books on copyright law are bloated with is precedent. Copyright is messy and, with new technologies, harder than ever to define and defend.

For example, if you design and program an interactive 3D digital world for sale, is it subject to copyright as the expression of an idea or patent law as a machine? Who knows, it hasn't been decided. Software is subject to copyright but some software patents have been granted in the US. Computers have blurred the boundary between art and artifact.

OK, so you believe that your copyright has been infringed, now what? Well, if you do go to court you have first to demonstrate the originality of your work. This is where you should plan on losing a chunk of your life, your savings and future earnings along with your belief in justice. There is little new under the sun. Where are the Dadaists now, eh?

Most creative work grows out of other creative work. Ideas seek freedom, they fly from mind to mind where they change and mutate. Am I stealing your work or paying you the compliment of using your ideas? One is legal the other not.

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