Property and Ownership Rights

You own a house and the ground it sits on.  You built this house from the foundation up yourself, using your own design, and besides the price you paid for the land, building permits and the building materials, you’ve also sunk a lot of your hard-earned cash into finishing it,  landscaping the property and putting your own creative identity on it.  As the owner, you can choose who you let in the front door, who you invite for dinner, and who you’d allow to stay in the guest room for an extended visit.

You decide that rather than live in it yourself, you want to rent the house out.  You run an ad, show it to one family after another until one decides they want to live there.  You present them with a lease that specifies all the terms and conditions of their residency in your house and how much it will cost them to live there.  But they inform you that they shouldn’t have to pay anything to live there because the house is there, available, and they want it.  It’s not their problem that the utilities need to be paid, the loans you took out need to be repaid, or the taxes need to be paid.

I have built stories from the foundation up with a lot of time and hard work.  The law says that as an original work of my creation, I own it.  I own all the property rights connected to it.  I have also spent money to build those stories for materials like printer ink and paper, internet usage, power usage, photocopy charges, and postage charges to submit them to publications for people to read and to recoup my expenses or earn a living.

The editors understand that if they want to publish the stories, they are buying the license to publish them in their magazines, i.e. first serial rights.  If I collect the stories into a book and a publisher wants to publish it, the publisher would buy North American or English language rights — or the license — to publish it.  As part of the license agreement, they pay me for the use of my stories, my intellectual property.  As owner of this intellectual property, I decide how it is used by what rights I sell.  According to law, my intellectual property cannot be used without the user purchasing a license to use it.

Intellectual property includes novels, short stories, nonfiction works, collections, plays, screenplays, movies, musicals, opera, classical music, pop music, songs, poetry, drawings, paintings, photography and sculpture.  It covers all the product of creative expression.  The law that covers intellectual property is copyright law.  Each country has its domestic copyright law and the Berne Convention covers international intellectual property law.

Ownership for the life of the creator isn’t difficult to understand.  Where things start to become murky for people is after the creator/owner dies.  U. S. law specifies that the copyright is in effect for a certain period after the creator/owner dies, when his or her heirs can renew the copyright for another specific period.  Right now, I think the periods are each 70 years.  After that, the work loses its copyright protection and goes into the public domain, which means anyone can use it without having to buy a license.

Why am I writing about this?  I think copyright is a good thing and protects a creator’s right of ownership for the intellectual property the creator has created.  The owner has the right to benefit from what he or she has created.  What about the creator’s heirs?  I don’t feel as strongly about that because the heirs were not the people who created the intellectual property.  They benefit from however the owner has benefited, if the owner passes it on as inheritance.  I think the way the law stands now is just fine.

So, internet users who use photos, artwork, music and/or any other intellectual property covered by copyright without paying for the right (licensing) to use it are breaking the law.  This is the reason downloading music for free from file-sharing websites is illegal, the reason we have online music stores like iTunes.

Is it a pain to buy a license to use intellectual property?  Not really.  With the internet, it’s fairly easy to find the copyright owner.  Then it’s a matter of negotiating the price, duration and any other terms and conditions for the license.  If you don’t have the money, you won’t be able to buy the license.

An entire segment of the population depends on earning money from intellectual property licenses in order to live, just like other people depend on their paychecks.  So before copying something from a website to use on a blog or in an e-mail, be sure to check to see if you can use it without the copyright holder’s permission or a license…..


2 responses to “Property and Ownership Rights

  1. Where does the realm of fan-fiction come into this paradigm? Your response to a commenter on an earlier post here mentioned it. I know it’s pretty popular with SciFi-Fandom. Is this violating copyright, by reusing an author’s characters to write your own stories just for fun? Or does it become violation at the point where you use your derivative-work for something other than personal enjoyment, i.e. try to make money off of it?

    I object to the current American copyright laws regarding the period of copyright extending so far past an author’s death. I’m not sure what number I would come up with, but 5 sounds like a good one. Five years should be enough time to execute a will and clean up any problems arising therefrom.

    If I can purchase the rights to use someone’s work. So can the author’s heirs. If they want to make money off of her work, they need to pay for the right to do so. Just like everyone else.

    • Fan-Fiction indeed uses copyrighted characters. I have yet to hear of an author or movie/TV studio pursuing legal action against fan-fiction writers. In fact, I believe I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling encourages it, as long as it’s done for personal enjoyment and shared on the internet — i.e. not for sale. If I remember correctly, she sees it as a way to encourage writing, reading and nurturing the imagination. I tend to agree. I think Paramount has been very lenient with the fan-fiction writers/producers/directors/actors who create online videos of Star Trek using the characters from the shows. I’ve seen some rather good episodes actually. So, I do think fan-fiction is a grey area and the line drawn is whether or not it’s created for profit or not.

      As for the time period following a copyright holder’s death, I’m kind of ambivalent myself. I appreciate the law’s purpose for solidifying authorship and protecting heirs. I think that rather than it being automatic, the copyright holder needs to include in his/her will that the copyright will pass to so-and-so heir, just like other property. Some writers do this anyway. Owning the copyright and purchasing the rights to use a work are two different things. The former is ownership, the latter is not. After the term of license expires, the person who purchased the license loses it unless he renews.

      Copyright law tends to give me a headache actually, which is why I’m grateful to know an entertainment lawyer who knows about it! (smile)

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