Copywrong and Copyleft

Question: Are these actions a violation of copyright?

  1. You downloaded a recent movie from some site or other that promised a free download if you’d only register with them. You did not sell any copies of this, however.
  2. You downloaded a very old movie from the 1920s from an internet archive.
  3. You copied a complete article from the New York Times website into an email to all your friends.
  4. You wrote a whole new “Star Trek” story and published it on your blog.
  5. You used a 10-second clip from a popular song as an intro for a video you made.
  6. You wrote a scathing critique of someone’s book, quoting short excerpts.
  7. You forwarded someone’s private email to all your coworkers because you thought it was funny.
  8. You “ripped” a CD to mp3 files so you could play them on your iPod.
  9. You “ripped” a CD and gave copies of the music to all your friends.
  10. You wrote a parody of a popular song, using your own lyrics.
  11. You copied something that did not have a copyright notice.


  1. Definitely. Just because you didn’t sell or even give it away, you still violated copyright law.
  2. Probably not. There are reputable sites that archive old movies and books that are now in the Public Domain (i.e. out of copyright).
  3. Definitely, especially if you copied it from a “subscribers only” area of the website.
  4. This is a violation, since copyright protects “Derivative works,” however, many (not all) copyright holders often ignore such works. Best to get the owner’s permission before publishing if you want to avoid trouble.
  5. Maybe. This could fall under the “Fair Use” provision. The criteria for fair use include whether the portion copied is an insignificant portion of the whole, whether the use is commercial or non-commercial, and whether it takes any money out of the pocket of the copyright holder. All these things are decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis.
  6. No. This usually falls under the Fair Use provision, as long as the copied portions are no larger than reasonably necessary to get the point across.
  7. Yes, emails are copyrighted by the author upon creation, although the courts have better things to do than litigate stuff like this, since most email has no commercial value. An exception may arise if the email in question severely damages someone’s reputation or reveals trade secrets.
  8.  No. The courts have ruled on similar cases, the most famous being “Is it legal to tape a TV show so I can watch it later?’ in the 1980s. Changing the format of a copyrighted work you already own is generally acceptable.
  9. Yes. You have the right to make a copy for your own use only. That doesn’t extend to sharing it, even if you don’t charge money for it.
  10.  No. Parody is a form of Fair Use, but it better really be a parody.
  11.  Probably yes. Just because something does not have a copyright notice does not mean it’s not copyrighted. If there is no copyright notice, your odds of being hauled into court may be lower, but it can still happen. Current copyright law says that all original works are copyrighted, whether notice is given or not.

Some works are specifically allowed to be copied, or are licensed in such a way that almost anything goes. For instance, the General Public License (GPL) allows and sometimes even encourages sharing and modification, but the modified software and all derivative works are also under the same license, i.e. it must still be free. A lot of free software has this license, also known as Copyleft.

Copywrong, another play on words, can mean a violation of copyright, but usually means a copyright holder’s draconian methods to stifle competition, or just because the owner is a jerk. A good example would be suing a club because some members sang a popular song at a gathering, or the NFL going after a church  for having a Superbowl party. (A “Public Performance”).

The main purpose of copyright is to allow the author of a work to enjoy the fruits of his labor, usually in the form of money. An extended purpose is giving the author control over how his work is used, for instance, he might not want DVD copies of a movie he starred in parachuted into Iraq.

Bottom line: All original works are copyrighted at their creation, even if there’s no copyright notice. Unless the work is specifically either in the Public Domain or under a GPL or Copyleft license, it is copyrighted. Any use of a copyrighted work that has the potential to take money out of the pocket of the copyright holder can easily get you sued or in jail.

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