Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus Says, “Don’t Steal!”

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about being plagiarized. In the comments on that post, I was particularly moved by this remark from IBD reader Heidi:

I agree with Karissa!

By way of context, I should point out that IBD reader Karissa had commented earlier on the same post:

Why not write a blog or two about copyrights and plagiarism in general? I would love to learn more about the challenges in the digital world regarding intellectual property.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I haven’t exactly written a post about copyright. But I’ve done the next best thing: I’ve stolen all of the text below from Dummies.com and claimed it as my own:

The Basics of Copyrights
A copyright protects an Original Work of Authorship (OWA) — think short story, computer program, or song lyrics, for example — which must have tangible form, be a result of significant mental activity, have no inherent technical function, and be the author’s original creation.

This seems pretty straightforward, though some might debate whether IBD is the result of actual “mental activity.” The most important thing to note here is that when you create something—anything—through your own “mental activity” (or in Shea’s case, randomly mashing his computer keyboard and punctuating it with “Go Yankees!”), you own the copyright. You don’t have to register it with any government agency (though you can; in the United States, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website to learn about that), and you don’t even have to put that © symbol on it. You own the copyright as soon as you create it, assuming you created it on your own time rather than on the job or under some other form of contract.

One obvious problem is that bad people steal things—be it money, intellectual property, or that parking space that I was clearly waiting for with my blinker on. Another less-obvious problem is that good people steal things without realizing what they’re doing.

Friend of IBD Amy Lethbridge shared this fascinating story from the Utne Reader about a mild-mannered guy named Noam Galai who posted an image of himself screaming on Flickr, only to find months later that it had been used around the world without his knowledge on everything from magazine covers to T-shirts to political posters. There’s a terrific video about it on the Digital Photography School website. (I’ve reproduced this poster from Uruguay in the name of fair use, which I’ll discuss below.)

In terms of technology, it’s extremely easy for me to download a photograph from a website and use it. But even if I credit the photographer and include a link to the website where I found the image, I’ve still used another person’s intellectual property without permission. I can legally use another person’s photograph if its owner has released the copyright (like some of those found on sites like Stck.Xchng or Wikimedia), if it is in the public domain (like many images created by government employees), or if I specifically request and receive permission from the copyright owner.

That said, copyright law does not always prevent you from reproducing another person’s work. The US Copyright Office says this:

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope…. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use.”

Fair use allows you to reproduce another person’s intellectual property for the purposes of commentary, criticism, or parody. If I use an artist’s illustration without permission just because I need an illustration, that’s copyright infringement, even if I credit the artist. However, if a piece of artwork has been put out in the world for public consumption and I use it in the course of critique or commentary (as with the poster above), that’s fair use.

If I publish the complete lyrics of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” for no reason, that’s both copyright infringement and poor taste. However, if I quote the single line, “Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while, Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies,” in the context of a post about how awesome senior prom was, that’s fair use.

If I write about certain design aspects of logos from Major League Baseball teams (which are trademarked rather than copyrighted, but fair use still applies), that’s fair use. However, if Philippe De Wulf of the Belgian design firm 6+1 takes all of the text from one of my blog posts and reproduces it in its entirety without my permission (even with that tiny little credit at the end), that’s copyright infringement.

In the end, the basics of copyright law are pretty simple: Don’t claim other people’s work as your own, implicitly or explicitly, and don’t use other people’s copyrighted material without permission. Unfortunately, technology has made copyright infringement extremely easy and far too common. If you’re an honest person, resist the urge to borrow copyrighted materials, even just this once, and even if they’ll never notice. If you’re a dishonest person, consider a career writing for the Belgian firm 6+1!

Note: The photograph of Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus at the top of this post was taken by Captain Budd Christman in the course of his duties as an employee of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

One Year of Interpretation By Design: What Have We Learned?


Photo by Michael Lorenzo

One year ago today, we asked the question “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” and with that, the Interpretation By Design blog was born. We have yet to achieve our stated goal of eradicating the world of clip art and Comic Sans, nor have we overthrown all world governments in order to impose our own merciless rule. But we have enjoyed the opportunity to dialogue with and learn from readers, as well as to rant incoherently about whatever random thought pops into our heads every Monday and Thursday.

We have gotten to brag about our respective favorite baseball teams winning the World Series (the Phillies earned their title in 2008; the Yankees purchased theirs in 2009). We have discussed design pet peeves (drop caps for me, the typeface Papyrus for Shea), and we have revealed our deepest, darkest secrets (I used to work in TV news, Shea likes Walmart).

We have learned (to our surprise) that our readers are passionate about grammatical and typographic minutiae like the difference between less and fewer and whether to single space or double space after a period—and whether they’re setting that type on a Mac or PC.

We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to use the phrase “Friend of IBD” often, not to mention that our respective marriages are still intact even after our families vacationed together during a blog-intensive week in Chicago last August. We’ve enjoyed (nearly) all of the comments that readers have left (even the one telling me that “life is too short” and that I should “get over it” in my post about drop caps).

In that first post exactly a year ago today, I wrote, “We don’t want your Social Security number, credit card information, or first-born child. You don’t even need a username or password. All you need is an interest in interpretation and/or graphic design and a moment to share your thoughts with us.”

Quiet sign on the road to Hana1Since then, we’ve enjoyed interacting with readers, especially when you send entertaining links and photos like this one from Friends of IBD Lori Spencer and Don Simons, who wrote after a trip to Hawaii, “Hi guys, You’ve got us noticing signs now.”

And that’s really what IBD is about. We know we’re never going to shut down a server because one of our posts goes viral on the Internet, but we hope to have found a niche of readers who find beauty in the quirky, who care about type and design, and who enjoy the way our natural and cultural heritage is presented visually at interpretive sites. We write this blog because we enjoy discussing interpretation and design. (If we didn’t have the blog, we’d probably end up writing all of the same content in emails to one another, only probably with even more snarky baseball-related comments, so it’s best for our mental health that we do have the blog.)

If we have changed the way you look at the world—noticing worn-down signs while others might be soaking in a beautiful rainforest or seascape, wondering whether a specific typeface was appropriate while others enjoy the content of an interpretive exhibit, or cringing at the use of a double space after a period while others read happily along without a care in the world—then our job is done, and we are truly sorry.

And finally, an announcement: For the next year, Shea and I will use the typeface Helvetica every day until a major Hollywood studio makes a movie about us called Shea and Paul and Max and Eduard. The movie will span seven decades and tell the parallel, touching stories of the creation of the typeface and our use of it. Shea will be played by Meryl Streep.