Copyright-what you (probably) can get away with, and what you (almost certainly) can’t

Copyright might not seem like a big deal. People copy protected material and they don’t get caught, or punished so why worry? People go speeding in their cars; people steal from their employers. They don’t get caught either, but it still doesn’t make it right.

Part of my job in a high-profile publishing company is to find out when our copyright has been infringed. You can call me a capitalist bastard and any other name under the sun. But what I have written here is designed to help you.

First, I want to set out why copyright is a big deal Next I want to show how a big publishing company deals with infringements Finally, I want to offer some advice on how to handle copyrighted material

Why copyright is a big deal—The publisher’s viewpoint

For a similar write up by an individual writer (Lucy-S) without the muscle of a big publishing company, follow this link

First, as publishers, we live or die by the information we publish. Our readers have limited money. It is their choice whether they pay for the stuff we offer them, or not. If they think they are going to benefit by buying our products, then we live. If they don’t then we lose readers, the advertising dries up and we die. Simple. Publish good stuff and thrive, or publish crap and die.

That is what publishing is about. Yes, there are exceptions. We all know of software houses which publish crap and seem to be thriving, but I am talking about business magazines, where there is always effective competition. The same applies to newspapers, books and almost all other printed media.

OK, so we employ good people, we pay them some pretty average wages, we do other stuff which costs money, and we publish the best articles in the world. Our readers are willing to pay for that information, which means we get the money to do it all again next issue. And so the cycle goes on.

We publish a lot of stuff each year. Mine is a small magazine, but we print between 300 000 and 500 000 words per year. Across the group it is many millions of words. We own that text. We have paid for it, and it is our intellectual property. By buying our magazines, you get the right to read the words and learn from them. You do not get the right to re-publish them under your own name.

Publishing is tough. It’s not easy to come up with good stuff every time. We have to pay for wages, air tickets, computers, phones and so on. So for someone who wants to publish good information on the cheap, the temptation is there to publish other peoples’ stuff under their own name, or without permission from the owner. It’s a fact of life. It happens.

If we see someone copying our material, we look to see what the effect is. First of all, we know that in our industry, like most others, people photocopy stuff, and distribute it to their colleagues. We know that particularly good articles get faxed and e-mailed around the world within days of them appearing. In many cases this is illegal. Do we complain, or object? No.

On the other hand, if we see sustained abuse, then we will have to consider whether to take action. If a company has one subscription, and routinely makes copies available to all its employees, we will prevent them from doing that, using the law, or other threats, as appropriate.

If we see someone copying our material, and then selling it for profit, we will act to prevent that.

Because we publish many thousands of articles a year, we do not worry too much about one article being copied illegally. It is when the abuse is systematic and sustained—or it appears that it will be sustained--that we are forced to defend our rights.

I don’t speak for every company here. Just ours. Other companies take a different attitude. In general however, copyright owners will normally only act when they believe that action will prevent future abuse. After a piece has been widely distributed once, copyright becomes all but worthless. It’s different for brand names, like Disney or Harry Potter, but for basic text, the publisher’s top priority is to prevent future abuse, rather than to protect that particular piece of text.


How we deal with copyright abuse.

Now, suppose we discover someone is ripping off our material, what do we do? We don’t especially want to do anything, so if it’s a one-off somewhere obscure, we’ll probably just have a laugh over it in the office, and check through to see how many mistakes they have made (usually it is a lot). If we find people doing it more than just once, we’ll give them a ring and warn them off in a reasonably friendly manner. But if it looks like either

  1. The first of a series of rip-offs
  2. they’re making money from our work or
  3. we are losing actual or potential business from the rip-off,

then we are going to get serious. First thing we do is write them a letter informing them of the situation. It runs along the following lines

We saw the following item in your publication (reference), and it appears to be a copy of the article we published (date, place, time). We believe this to be a breach of copyright. We treat breach of copyright as theft, and we reserve the right to take the appropriate legal action.

After that, it depends a bit on how serious we think the issue is. In a mild case, we will suggest that they contact us to tell us how they intend to correct the situation. If we think it is serious, we send in the lawyers immediately.

The prime objective is to ensure there is no repetition of the infringement. After that, we want the offending piece removed, and finally, we want a public apology. We can live without the apology, but the first two are pretty important to us. In serious cases, we may also expect payment of a sum of money, which we specify, to a charity.

At this stage we will listen to the following arguments, especially if the breach is not too serious.

  1. None of our audience is a regular reader of your publications. We have quoted you as the source, and we are giving you publicity for free. You might get some subscriptions from this publicity.
  2. Our audience is not your prime audience. None of our audience would buy your products under normal circumstances, so we are not damaging your business.
  3. We think this is fair use. If you don’t think it is fair use, lets talk and find a way through it.
  4. I’m calling my lawyer. (We never get this, but if we did, we’d just get the lawyers together)


What is a breach of copyright.

Now I want to turn things around. I am going to explain how we stay on the right side of the copyright laws in our own editorial office.

Sometimes we get hold of a document which we want to publish, but for some reason the authors do not want us to do that. Here are our rules of thumb in those situations.

  1. Always attribute author, publication and date. Always.
  2. Give phone numbers, URLs and so on if at all possible. Try really hard to do this.
  3. Speak to the publisher ahead of time, and try to get full clearance.
  4. Never publish more than 10 percent verbatim. Absolute maximum.
  5. For each 100 words of quoted text, add 100 words of our own as explanation, guidance, or interpretation.
  6. Tables count toward the 10 percent limit
  7. Don’t send the finished article out prior to publication
  8. In cases of high sensitivity, seek advice from internal personnel (lawyers etc)

To summarise, publishers do want to protect their rights, because by doing so they protect their future business. They are not going to get too fussed over a one-off breach, but will certainly act if they discover sustained or systematic abuse.

To stay on the right side of the copyright law, Always quote the source, never quote more than 10 percent of the particular article you are summarising and try to add something of your own to the new text.

Addendum to a contribution since nuked

Quite right, it's all very complicated and obscure. A lot of it is open to interpretation.

I know the 10 percent rule is not fixed in law in any country, but it's a good guide. It's what our lawyers tell us, and it's what other lawyers think can be defended in court. People exceed that figure at their own risk.

The idea of adding 100 words of original text for 100 words of copied text is not in any textbook, but it works. This is advice from one noder to another. If you want a legal opinion, ask a lawyer.

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