Like it or not, more money is made by exploiting intellectual property (selling it, licensing it) than creating it. If you are in the business of creativity, then you want to avoid being ripped off – and ensure that you are the one who reaps the rewards of your hard work.
There are also plenty of ways you can get into trouble by infringing other people’s rights, especially if you are publishing content online.
So here are some practical resources to help you steer clear of legal entanglements and make the most of your creative capital. I’ve also included some reading to help you understand the real issues behind the media rhetoric of ‘intellectual property’ – and how they affect you.
I imagine it’s blatantly obvious that I’m not a legal practitioner, so this page should not be taken as legal advice, but a signpost to useful resources. Hopefully they will save you a few legal bills… but if you do need to consult a lawyer about these issues, look for an intellectual property specialist, there are plenty of them about these days.
The UK Patent Office
The UK Patent Office is the government body responsible for granting intellectual property rights in the UK, including copyright, design rights, patents and trademarks. So if you want to register a trademark or apply for a patent in the UK, these are the people to go to. Their website has a useful introduction to intellectual property, including managing your own IP and respecting other people’s. Whenever I’ve had contact with them they’ve been very helpful and efficient.
United States Patent and Trademark Office
Many of my readers are in the USA, where intellectual property rights are the responsibility of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I’ve not had personal contact with them, but their website is very comprehensive and should be an essential bookmark for anyone with an interest in intellectual property in the US.
Creative Commons – License your work
Creative Commons is on a mission to ‘enable the legal sharing and reuse of cultural, educational and scientific works’. It’s founded on the important (and often overlooked) insight that creativity depends on the ability to draw inspiration from previous works and build upon them. Authors and creators clearly need to be rewarded and their rights protected – but if we are over-zealous in ‘strengthening’ intellectual property legislation, then we risk stifling future creativity. E.g. There was a ‘lost’ Elizabethan play called Hamlet before Shakespeare’s version – if Elizabethan law had been ‘stronger’, its author could conceivably have sued Shakespeare for infringement and prevented his Hamlet from being performed and published.
Creative Commons helps to protect creators’ rights while facilitating others’ creativity by offering a set of free and flexible licenses that anyone can apply to their own work. So for instance, you might publish an e-book or photograph on the net with a licence that allows anyone to copy and republish it as long as they give you credit as the creator, and do not use it for commercial purposes. The Creative Commons site detais the flexible range of protections and freedoms available with the various CC licences.
Why would you want to ‘weaken’ your copyright in this way by allowing others to copy your work? Firstly, there may well be instances where you actively want others to copy your work and pass it on to others, to help you reach a wider audience. Standard copyright would introduce needless ‘friction’ here, since the scrupulous folks out there would have second thoughts about copying or republishing your work if they thought they were ‘infringing copyright’. So in this case a CC license would remove a barrier to your work (and you) becoming more widely known.
Visit the Creative Commons Search Page and you’ll see another benefit of the CC system – a search engine that allows you to search for CC-licensed works that are available for you to use. You can specify whether you are looking for works you want to use commercially, or to modify and adapt to create new works – ensuring that you respect the authors’ intentions. So we can all spend less time in lawyers’ offices and more time getting on with our creative work.
As well as the licenses and search facility, the site includes a Creative Commons Weblog where you can keep up with the latest developments in CC and IP.
Copyscape – Find out if someone is stealing your content
Copyscape is a brilliantly simple idea – a free search engine where you can search for unauthorised copies of your web pages. Put in the address of your website and they will return a list of pages that have copies of any of your text (this is one search engine where less is definitely more!). Their Global Web Rights Campaign gives you advice on understanding your rights, how to avoid plagiarism and how to respond to online plagiarism.
Plagiarism Today Blog
Plagiarism Today is ‘a site about plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues online’ by Jonathan Bailey, who describes himself as ‘not a lawyer nor anything close… just a legally-minded Webmaster/Writer frustrated with the plague of plagiarism online and doing something about it’. For someone without legal training he’s remarkably well-informed, and his blog is an excellent source of information and advice for anyone running a website. The sections on Stopping Plagiarism Online and Your Copyrights Online are good starting points.
Tubetorial videos – IP advice for web publishers
If you run a website, write a blog or create information products for sale online, check out the free video tutorials at Tubetorial. As well as excellent ‘how to’ tips on creating digital products, they include advice on intellectual property issues, such as What Bloggers Need to Know About the Law, Copyright Issues for Bloggers and Trademark Law and Your Domain Name. The videos are short (about 5 minutes) and Samantha Engelbart-Clarke boils complex topics down to essential information, with the emphasis on helping you publish your work while avoiding trouble. The videos refer mainly to US law, but also highlight some ways US laws can affect you if you live elsewhere (and vice versa).
Own-It – Creative London Intellectual Property Service (Free!)
Own-It is a free intellectual property advice service for creative people in London. They offer seminars, workshops and a free newsletter, and if you need it, free advice from an intellectual property lawyer. Own-It’s service covers copyright, design rights, patents, trademarks, branding, confidentiality agreements, licensing, royalties and contracts. If you live in London this is a service that could help you take full advantage of your intellectual property and/or save you a lot of trouble. Registration is free, so what have you got to lose?
Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School in the US, and Chairman of the Board of Creative Commons (see above). Free Culture is a fascinating, passionate and alarming account of the threat to creativity and the public domain posed by recent trends in intellectual property legislation. News stories often present these trends as a simple case of defending ‘intellectual property rights’ from ‘piracy’. Yet Lessig argues that this rhetoric is a smokescreen created by ‘big media’ to hide their use of ‘technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity’.
One of the problems with intellectual property issues is that they can seem so complex and arcane that we are tempted to ‘leave it to the experts’. Lessig argues that this has worked to the advantage of the ‘copyright warriors’ and other ‘extremists’ with a hidden agenda. He does a brilliant job of explaining the issues and why they matter, with some eye-opening stories and examples from the history of creativity – artistic, scientific, technological and commercial.
This book is important because the ideas are important – but it’s also a compelling and enjoyable read that will prompt you to rethink many of your ideas about creativity. And it’s hard to resist a book by a law professor that ends with an injunction to ‘fire lots of lawyers’! (Amazon USA link.)
Lawrence Lessig’s blog
Lawrence Lessig’s blog features the latest news and musings from the author of Free Culture, about intellectual property, technology and culture. A welcome antidote to some of the IP stories doing the round in traditional media channels. E.g. This video about Google Book Search explained the issues much more clearly and carefully than most of the coverage I saw when Google announced the service. You can also download his books for free and take part in ‘remixing’ them if you feel yourself qualified (I don’t, but it’s an appealing idea).
Sonic Boom by John Alderman
The story of Napster and the filesharing revolution, as it affected musicians, fans, record companies – and Shawn Fanning, the man who created Napster. As the culture editor of Wired News John Alderman was well-placed to tell the story of this battle between new technology and old media, and the legislators’ attempts to referee it. I remember it as being a shorter read than 225 pages, which says something about the pace of Alderman’s storytelling. Although it deals with the impact of technology, this is a book about people and the passions aroused when their rights (as artists, businesses, innovators) are under threat. (Amazon USA link.)
An interesting coda is the fact that poacher Shawn Fanning has now turned gamekeeper with his new project SNOCAP, a Digital Registry for facilitating legal filesharing. SNOCAP has agreed partnerships with major record companies, and in September 2006 announced a partnership with MySpace that will enable artists and record companies to sell music from their MySpace pages. You can follow the latest instalments in the story on the SNOCAP Press Page.
Holyoak & Torremans: Intellectual Property Law
If you’re really interested in the subject and want to go beyond a basic introduction to intellectual property law, Holyoak and Torremans is a good textbook. It combines detailed coverage of the topic with a style that is readable enough to be accessible to non-lawyers. At 600+ pages it’s definitely not for casual browser and I’ve not read the whole thing cover-to-cover, but it’s a good reference to have on my bookshelf and can be surprisingly absorbing when I take it down.
N.B. This book covers UK intellectual property law (including the impact of European and international law on the UK) – if anyone can recommend a similar text for the US (or other countries) I’d be grateful.