Protecting Your Content – Copyright, Licensing, and You

Why Should I Worry About Licensing?

You probably just have a blog, or maybe you haven’t even started blogging yet. Maybe you’re just sharing your thoughts on Facebook Notes or Google Pages. However you look at it you’re probably certain that you don’t need to worry about your writing on the web. It is, after all, your content.

Think again.

In all fairness, Facebook’s terms of use are some of the more consumer friendly terms of service out there. Facebook does not claim copyright over your content, but using Facebook immediately grants Facebook “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (‘IP License’)”. Basically, Facebook can use any picture or thought you’ve posted at any time with no notice to you. Their ability to use your content continues as long as you have an account and you have not shared your content with anyone.

Google’s terms of service are not as friendly as Facebook’s. To start with, Google’s terms use legal language while Facebook’s terms are in something reasonably close to plain English. Google’s terms get worse from there. Instead of allowing you to remove your content by permanently deleting it (and all copies), Google’s terms state that you’re giving them the right to use your thoughts until the end of time, or until you stop using all of Google’s services (see sections 11 and 13.2). Both companies’ terms of service contain my favorite legal provision: the terms are subject to change at any time. In short, if you aren’t hosting your own content, you don’t own it. Not completely. You can claim you’re copyrighting it, but someone else can use it because you’ve implicitly given them permission, and that permission may change.

Back to my earlier question: why should you worry about licensing? You should worry about licensing because you want to be able to control your own content. There’s nothing that stops a third party from changing the terms of service to require their permission if you republish something. If you wanted to republish a blog post on another site, syndicate your content, or print something you wrote in a book you could suddenly find yourself in a legal mess. What if you don’t want pictures of yourself, your friends, or your children to appear in ads?

Licensing comes down to control over your content and maintaining that control into the future. If you want to keep control, you need to examine the license that you have chosen for your content. This doesn’t just apply to the written word, it applies to your presentations, your photographs, and your code samples.

Written Licensing

What’s the best way to protect content you’ve written? That all depends on how you want people to be able to use and re-use your content.

The Well Worn Path: Copyrighting Your Work

The strictest way to protect your content is to copyright it. Stanford University have compiled a great list of copyright resources and it’s important to understand the rights around your work. A copyrighted work doesn’t need to be marked as such, but it will make it much easier to enforce your copyright. Very few people actively want to steal your work, by including a copyright notice with contact information you are making it easier for other authors to track you down and get your permission to use part of your work. The best part is that because of international treaties, there is very little difference in copyright laws between different countries.

Keep in mind that copyrighting your work does not prevent others from reusing portions of your work under fair use principles. Fair use is a tricky thing and is subject to some vague criteria. If you aren’t competing with the author, copying wholesale, building a new work, and are not motivated by a desire for commercial gain, you’re on the way to falling under fair use rules. When in doubt, ask the original author for permission. If you can’t find the original author, find an attorney.

While there are some nuances to copyright law, it is fairly straightforward. You mark your work as copyrighted and that’s it. Others can make use of portions of your work under fair use guidelines and they should ask for permission, but it isn’t strictly necessary.

Flexible Designs for the Future: Creative Commons

A Creative Commons license is, on the surface, not so different from traditional copyright. It’s a more flexible copyright. Rather than have a single, restrictive agreement between the copyright holder and the rest of the world, the Creative Commons license makes it easy for copyright holders to expressly allow certain behaviors.

It all boils down to a few questions:

  • Do you want to allow commercial use of your work?
  • Do you want to allow adaptations of your work?
  • Do you want the terms of the license to continue?

Saying “no” to any of these questions doesn’t prevent anyone from using your work in those ways, they just need to obtain your express permission. ACreative Commons license page clearly explains the terms of a particular license making it very easy for readers and other authors to learn how they can or cannot use your work.

One of the most important aspects of the Creative Commons license is the ability to require future authors to share alike. Adding the share alike provision to your Creative Commons license requires future collaborators to distribute their derivative work under the same license; your work and all work that builds on it will always be available under the same terms you envisioned when you created the content.

Learn more.

The Public Domain

I’ll admit it freely: when I started writing this, I didn’t know a whole lot about how the public domain worked and what it meant. I knew that everything in the public domain was free and couldn’t be taken under someone else’s control, but I didn’t know much more than that.

A work enters the public domain when the intellectual property rights on the work expire or when those rights are forfeited. Basically, I can take anything I’ve previously written and decree that my work is now in the public domain. It belongs to everyone at that point. Work that has entered the public domain is free for anyone else to build upon. In many ways, the public domain is crucial for the advancement of science and the arts. It makes it possible to build on earlier works, to examine and expand upon the work of Isaac Newton or to re-arrange a symphony to be performed by kazoos and barking dogs. Works in the public domain carry no restrictions on their use.

Unfortunately, the definition of public domain varies from country to country so there’s no reliable guarantee or best guess that you can make about how something can be used or re-used, even if the author states their work is in the public domain. When in doubt, consult an attorney (or Google).

The biggest thing to remember about putting your own work in the public domain is that it’s out there for anyone to use and re-use. A less scrupulous person could collect your blog posts and arrange them into a coherent narrative and the publish it as a book. They could also make as many changes as they wanted and there would be nothing you could do to correct the situation.

Software Licensing

Why should we even be talking about software licensing? Software licensing is important if you want to release software for people to use, or even if you want to put sample code on your blog for others to re-use. Of course, you could state in your blog’s copyright that all of your source code is covered under the same restrictive copyright as the rest of your blog, but where’s the fun in that?

Proprietary Software

This is software that is exclusively licensed by the copyright holder. The copyright holder says “here, you can use this because you gave me money, but you have to abide by these rules.” After which they drop a license document the size of a phone book on your desk with an invoice stapled to the top.

So it’s not really like that. How does it work?

With proprietary software, the copyright holder grants you the right to use their software within certain conditions – you can’t modify it or sell it along to your buddies or reverse engineer it to make your own version. License terms vary from vendor to vendor. Some are incredibly permissive and others are very strict. It’s important to look at your software license if you’re ever in doubt of what you can or can’t do with your software.

Likewise, if you’re going to be creating software, you need to be aware of what the terms of your license mean. Commercial software is best licensed under a proprietary license. After all, if I can download and compile your source code free of charge, why should I pay you for your software?

Open Source Software

There are some people who will take issue and say that I should call this section Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) or Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS). To these people I say, “get your own blog!”

Open Source Software (OSS) is a contentious area of software. In practice, OSS is software that is released under a specific license and the source code is distributed with the software. In fact, OSS software usually comes as nothing but source code with a license attached. Helpful people often provide compiled versions of the software for various hardware and software platforms.

One of the greatest strengths of open source software is that future users of the software and given specific rights that are normally reserved for copyright holders. This is a lot like Creative Commons licensing in some ways. There are far too many open source licenses to examine them in any detail, so be sure to do your homework if you ever need to choose one.

Now, why should you choose an open source license? I choose to release my demo code under an open source license because I want people to be able to use it, re-use it, and feel free to contribute back. Demo code should stand on its own, but it’s important to remember that your demo code is part of your reputation – keep it safe.

Some good options for open source licenses are the Apache License, the MIT License, or the LGPL. Make sure you read the licenses and understand them before using them. Some licenses have more provisions than others, some restrict future commericial use, and some have almost no provisions at all (the MIT and BSD licenses are like this).

Public Domain

Public domain isn’t specific to the written word, art, and music – software can be covered under the public domain as well. The same legal ramifications apply to software released under the public domain. One of the more famous pieces of public domain software is SQLite.

Why Should I Be Worried About This?

Anyone worried about maintaining control of their own work should be worried about copyright and software licensing. Maintaining control of your work and how it can be distributed is an important part of producing content. If you want to be permissive about ho`w your work is used, you can grant rights to people in advance through the Creative Commons or through open source licensing. If you want people to request permission, you can use stricter copyright requirements and proprietary software licensing. There are many choices available.

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