Elementary, My Dear Watson: Clearing the Confusion on Copyright Compliance

Every rational person knows that stealing is wrong. Property that doesn’t belong to you doesn’t belong to you, and you can’t take it by force. But, when it comes to intellectual property, people seem to be challenged because it’s usually not something that can be touched physically.. The issue of intellectual property theft generates a different conversation, because it’s not like you’re stealing someone’s bike or money from a bank account – it’s not physical or material.

But, intellectual property is still property – it’s a creation born by someone’s mind and can be put into a physical medium (e.g., a book) or some other non-tangible format (e.g., a video or piece of music).

As such, you can’t just go and download the newest hit song on the radio and distribute them to your friends. While some might believe it to be fashionable to do that right now, there are guidelines and rules for claiming fair use, and the most popular content-sharing sites out there that deal in torrent files aren’t exempt from them.

In fact, many of these sites publish guidelines of their own, which reiterate the importance of copyright laws, and are consistent with the laws in the U.S. concerning copyright protection. These sites do not knowingly allow users to upload and share copyright-protected works. In fact, user accounts can be disabled and users turned into the authorities for attempting to circumvent the laws.

With law enforcement trolling these sites, it’s also a high-risk endeavor for the user. That doesn’t mean that copyright-protected works are completely off-limits.

Unlike other forms of property, some forms of intellectual property are governed by special laws called “copyright laws.” These laws are designed to protect the intellectual works of authorship of others. And, while these laws generally prohibit the copying and distribution of protected works without the authorization or license of the copyright holder, there’s a sort of escape clause which still allows for the protection of property and at the same time allows others to copy and use another person’s intellectual works. It’s called “fair use.”

Fair use laws aren’t exactly black and white, however, and many cases that comes before the courts contains their own special set of circumstances, sometimes making copyright law rather difficult to understand. Still, there are some general guidelines that everyone can and should follow. They’re called the “4 pillars” of fair use. Companies like Vuze are making every effort possible to keep their users informed about staying on the right side of copyright laws, how not to infringe upon copyrights, and how to source fair use, creative commons licensed content, as well as content that is in the public domain, or is authorized or licensed by the copyright holder for free distribution and sharing.

The Purpose Of The Use

What are you using the copyrighted content for? In some cases, educational institutions get more leeway than commercial enterprises. Some educational institutions are allowed to use some copyright-protected works more freely or quote more extensively than non-educational institutions. It’s important to understand these nuances so that you don’t run afoul of the law.

The Nature of The Copyrighted Work

The nature of the actual work that is copyright-protected may also matter. For non-fiction books, for example, you may have more leeway to quote the author than you would have for a work of fiction. This is because, according to the law, the non-fiction work contains facts or information that benefits the public. You also have a stronger case for fair use if you’re quoting from a published work rather than an unpublished work, because an author has more control over the first public printing or appearance of his or her expression.

How Much Is Used Relative To The Entire Work

The amount of the source material you are copying or quoting also matters. If you quote a passage from a protected work, shorter tends to be better, but it’s not a hard and fast rule either. In some cases, like a parody, longer may be OK. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the heart of the original work can be borrowed for parody use because it’s precisely that at which the parody takes aim and which will conjure up the original work in the minds of the audience.

Whether The Use Will Affect The Potential Market For or Value of The Work

Yet another important factor in copyright law is whether the use deprives the copyright owner of income or undermines a new market, whether actual or potential.


It doesn’t matter whether a copyright holder has already made a lot of money from its works. The copyright owner owns his work and, as such, is entitled to an unlimited profit from the sale of that work.

What About Classics?

Most classics authored before 1923 are out of the realm of copyright protection, and are in the public domain, but a new case shows that even classics may not be used wholesale. Most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series is in the public domain free from copyright protection – at least partially.

However, news organizations, bloggers, writers, and other artists need to tread carefully because there are still 10 stories that are still protected. [Discuss that the case dealt with a character whose character was developed over time, including in works that were not yet in the public domain] Copyright laws are complex, and recent court cases prove that copyright holders and the courts take these matters very seriously. Without copyright laws, valuable works of art can be destroyed and irreparable harm can be done and that’s not something a civilized society is willing to stand for.

Nancy Owen is a law student concentrating on intellectual property. She enjoys blogging about common legal questions in the modern world.

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