Copyright Law Made Easy

Do you understand copyright? Most people don’t. And in most cases, you don’t need to worry about most cases of copyright infringement like taking images off Google Image search. I mean, who’s going to go through the trouble of suing you? However, if you’re running a business, it’s absolutely critical that you follow the law. To explain this issue, let me tell you the fateful story of a young man named, “Vanilla Ice.”


The Story of Vanilla Ice

The quality of music videos has come a long way since the 90s.

Vanilla Ice was a rapper that was famous in the 90s. He wore big baggy pants, had a ridiculous hairdo, and he was white, which was rare for a rapper. He was one of the hottest musicians during his day because of his hit single, “Ice Ice Baby” (watch it!).

One technique that Vanilla Ice practiced was called “sampling.” Sampling meant taking a piece from one song and then using it to create a completely new song. In his case, he stole the bass line from Queen’s song, “Under Pressure,” and then repackaged it into his own rap song.

Vanilla Ice was sued for copyright infringement and he settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money with Queen and David Bowie, who produced “Under Pressure.” Vanilla Ice also sampled another song to make “Play That Funky Music.” He ended up being sued for that too and paid $500,000 to Robert Parissi, the producer of the original song.

Although Vanilla had plenty of money to pay for these lawsuits, the truth is that if he had known the law a little better, he could’ve been that much richer. You can also bet that Queen and Robert Parissi were both glad that Vanilla Ice sampled their songs, because it was easy money for them.


Understand copyright law

Copyright law is simple: when someone creates something, they own their creation and have exclusive, legal rights to it. An author owns their book, a painter owns their painting, and a music producer owns their music. Even something small like this blog entry, is copyrighted in my name. Copyright is automatic, but people can still register their copyright with the US Copyright  Office. Registering a copyright makes it easier to prove ownership when you sue for infringement of copyright.


What happens if I infringe on someone’s copyright?

When someone uses a copyrighted piece of work, they are committing copyright infringement.  Even taking a bass line from a song like Vanilla Ice did was still considered copyright infringement. The consequences will differ however, depending on the situation:

1. Is the infringer doing it for fun? Let’s use a new example: Sally is a big Justin Bieber fan. She has a fan blog dedicated to Justin Bieber. She googles “Justin Bieber” and uses the first picture she finds in her blog. Sally is committing copyright infringement. The owner of  the picture (the photographer) can sue Sally, but Sally is not making money on her blog, so the owner of the picture will not care enough to sue Sally.

2. Is the infringer making money? Let’s say that Sally starts printing t-shirts using the copyrighted photo of Justin Bieber that she found on Google. She charges $25 a t-shirt and ends up making over $6,000 in profit at the end of the year. If the photographer of the photo sues Sally, a judge would easily rule against her and give a chunk of her profit to the photographer. A judge will almost never rule in favor of copyright infringement for commercial purposes.

3. Does the infringer have a website? The most common way that people deal with copyright infringers is that they have their website taken down. If the photographer wants to defend their work but does not want to go through the trouble of suing Sally, the photographer can file a complaint with the DMCA. DMCA then notifies Sally’s webhost that they’re hosting copyrighted photos. Sally’s webhost will then shutdown Sally’s website because they don’t want to get in trouble with the DMCA.

4. Is the infringer not in the United States? There’s actually an international copyright law, but let’s be honest, it’s hard to sue someone that lives across the globe. Copyright regulation is also harder in some countries like China, where the level of piracy and copyright violations are so frequent that it’s impossible for authorities to keep up.


By Klearchos Kapoutsis. CC BY 2.0

When can I use copyrighted material?

There are several situations where it’s okay to use copyrighted material.

1. Get permission from the copyright owner. This is definitely the easiest method.

2. Get a license from the copyright owner. A lot of owners will be willing to let you use their creation… for a price. The license might be a flat fee or it might be a royalty fee, where you have to pay a percent of all your sales. Although it sound costly, it’s nothing compared to judgement you’ll have to pay.

Some owners also give out liberal licenses, such as a Creative Commons License. Basically, the owners keep rights to their creation, but allow people to freely use their work, as long as the owner is attributed and other guidelines are followed (for example, non-commercial use). The photos I use on this website, for example, come from Flickr’s Creative Commons section.

3. Take advantage of “Fair Use,” an exception to copyright law. Fair Use is a defense against copyright infringement and can be used in certain situations. Fair Use is meant to allow the public to use copyrighted material for good reasons. Here are examples:

  • Critique and commentary. Let’s say that I am writing a review about the new Evil Dead movie. I can actually use a few screen caps from the movie, since my review is entirely about the movie. This is also why I am able to use a frame of Vanilla Ice at the beginning of this article, even though the music video that I got the frame from is copyrighted. 
  • Educational Purposes. Let’s say that a teacher in high school wants to teach her students how to write a movie review. She can go to Ebert and Roeper’s website, find a movie review, print out copies, and distribute the copies to her students.
  • Parody. A guy named Michael Stanard decided to sell t-shirts parodying Nike’s design. He printed his T-shirts with the Nike swoosh, his named “Mike,” and the slogan “Just Did It.” Nike sued Michael, but Michael won. Michael’s T-shirts were copying Nike’s design and trademark, but his design was copying it only for the sake of poking fun at it, so he won, even though he was making money. Furthermore, there was no evidence that people were confusing Michael’s T-shirts for actual Nike gear, in which case it would be a trademark issue. This parody exception is the same reason why Weird Al Yankovic can make bizarre music video parodies and not get sued.

4. Wait for the copyright to die. Copyrights last for the entirety of the author’s life + ~75 years. After the copyright expires, the creation becomes part of public domain and you’re allowed to use it freely. Examples of public domain works include Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and any song from Beethoven.


One last note

I hope this was useful for you. Just remember that laws are complex and even with everything I wrote here, there’s a lot more to it, so read more about it. When it comes to a judge ruling on copyright infringement, the situation is rarely black and white (unless you’re blatantly sampling like Vanilla Ice), so you need to do everything you can to help your case by understanding the law.

If you can’t get permission to use a copyrighted work, you still don’t understand Fair Use, or you don’t want to risk getting sued, then play it safe and just don’t use it.

3 comments on “Copyright Law Made Easy

  1. Hey thanks so much for writing this. Amazing that I went through grade school and uni and no one ever taught me any of this stuff!!!!


Comments are closed.