Vol 45, Issue 1

September/October 2005


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STC Houston - Dateline Houston - September/October 2005

CopyNight, Copyrights, and Coffee Nights

Artistic Copyrights From an Independent and Small Business Point of Wiew

by Robert Delwood, STC Houston

Few issues are as important to the technical communicator and so misunderstood as copyright laws. The laws intend to protect the rights of the creator but over the years they may have morphed into something completely different. Depending on your perspective, the current law and proposed laws diverge from the original intend even more.

Robert Nagle, a Houston-based technical writer, independent film maker, and interactive medium artist, follows these changes with keen interest. Nagle organizes Houston CopyNight, an informal monthly meeting for those interested in copyright laws and their possible reform. The July 2005 meeting, named Welcome to 1922, centered on the Sonny Bono Act, which extended copyrights another 20 years; material that would have been available from 1922 is now copyrighted until 2018. After Nagle’s initial thirty minute presentation, he was joined by Katie Sunstrom, an intellectual property lawyer, for another thirty minutes. An open question period closed the month’s meeting.

This may seem like an obscure topic but to independent artists, art entering the public domain is an important source of material. More interestingly, the legal trends threaten the creative commons artistic concept. Creative commons is a popular concept among artists (including technical communicators) who offer liberal copyright permissions for non commercial purposes. This encourages the use and dissemination of their works for recognition.

Independent artists and small businesses make a case that copyrights have become such a legal quagmire and are so unclear that using existing material is not worth the risk. They can be sued or asked to discontinue an artist investment. Disproving a claim is neither inexpensive nor easy. The public domain status or even the ownership of some artwork is often unclear. A class of material called orphan artwork (much of it from the 1920s to the 1940s), for example, has had its copyright accountability lost over the years; perhaps because the original owners cannot be found or have since gone out of business.

There are other issues, too. The interpretation of derivative art, such as materials that include the mere reference or allusion to other materials, may be increasingly strict. The fair use doctrine is unclear and its interpretation seems inconsistent. Even the definition of commercial use may be unclear. Recent court cases have found that the presence of a commercial banner on a individual’s Web blog makes all the material on the page subject to “commercial use.”

Nagle uses CopyNight as a forum to discuss and to disseminate information. He quickly points out that although he has his own interests and opinions on these matters, CopyNight is not an advocacy group. The national organization bills itself as meeting “over drinks” to discuss “new developments and build social ties between artists, engineers, filmmakers, academics, lawyers, and many others.”

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