That’s not how copyright works.

If someone linked you to this site, it’s because you said something dumb about copyright.

Most likely, you uploaded a copyrighted song or video to YouTube (or some other site), along with a disclaimer which (you think) protects you from prosecution. You are wrong, and here’s why.

I’m not trying to call you out for doing something illegal or unethical. This isn’t an anti-piracy page. I’m just explaining what copyright actually means, since you clearly don’t have the faintest idea.

This page discusses copyright in the United States. Laws in other countries may vary.

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How copyright actually works: #

Copyright is about who has the legal right to make copies of a creative work. #

If you own the copyright for a creative work (a book, a movie, a photograph, a piece of software, etc.), then you (and only you, with certain exceptions) are legally allowed to make copies of that work.

(A “copy”, in this context, means publication in any form: uploading it to YouTube, making bootleg DVDs, scanning a book and posting it on a website, etc.)

The point of copyright is to encourage the production of creative works. #

Imagine that you’ve spent two years writing a book. You’ve gone into debt (you had to quit your job so you could spend more time writing), and you’ve poured your heart and soul into this thing. Finally, it’s done, and you release it into the world.

Great news—it’s a hit! Copies are flying off the shelves. All of your sacrifice and hard work is paying off.

But before long, other people—people you don’t even know—smell an opportunity. Unscrupulous printing presses start making and selling their own copies of your book. And, of course, they don’t send you a single dime of those profits.

Suddenly, fewer people are buying the copies that you’re offering for sale, because the market is flooded with cheaper knock-offs. Thousands of people love your book, but you still can’t pay your rent.

Now: after that experience, would you be inclined to spend two more years working on a sequel? No, you wouldn’t.

That’s the problem that copyright is meant to solve: it ensures that creators have a financial motive (and the financial means) to keep creating.

Sometimes you’re allowed to make copies of a copyrighted work—but only in very specific circumstances. #

Those circumstances are:

If the owner of the copyright has given you permission: Just as the owner of a lawnmower can give his neighbor permission to use it, the owner of a copyright can grant permission for others to duplicate the copyrighted work.

If the type of copy you’re making is specifically allowed under fair use: The law grants certain provisions, known as “fair use”, which allow you to reproduce copyrighted works as long as your use of the work is sufficiently transformative (e.g., using a photograph as part of a collage), and/or limited (e.g., quoting a brief part of a book in a review). But fair use doesn’t allow you to reproduce the entire work without any creative transformation.

If the copyright has expired: Copyrights don’t last forever. Depending on the nature of the work, and various other factors, copyrights typically last for anywhere from 70 to 120+ years. When a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, which means that anyone is free to do whatever they like with it—even selling it for profit. (For example, the copyrights have expired on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, so anyone can print and sell copies of his stories.)

Here are some of the specific dumb things you might have said about copyright: #

“No copyright infringement intended!” #

It doesn’t matter whether you intended to violate copyright. All that matters is that you did.

Think about it: if you robbed a bank, and then told the judge that you didn’t mean to rob that bank, do you think she’d care? If any criminal could just say “sorry; I didn’t intend to commit the crime that I committed”, we’d have a lot more criminals roaming free.

Besides, you obviously did intend to violate copyright. You made a copy of the work (which was an intentional act); you were aware that the work was copyrighted (or you wouldn’t have bothered to include a disclaimer); therefore, you intended to violate copyright.

“For non-commercial purposes only! I’m not making any profit from this!” #

It doesn’t matter. If you don’t own the copyright, and don’t have permission from the person who does, then you don’t have the right to make copies—regardless of whether or not you’re charging money for them.

This makes sense when you remember that the point of copyright is to make sure that creators get rewarded for their work. If you make a work available for free (e.g., by uploading an album to YouTube), then other people have no incentive to actually pay for it. Who’s going to buy an album that’s available for free?

In fact, distributing the work for free arguably hurts the owner more than charging for it would. The cheaper your version is, the less people will be inclined to buy it from the legitimate owner.

“For entertainment purposes only! #

Say you’re a palm reader. Or you’re a TV producer filming a scripted reality show in a documentary style. The point is, you’re doing something at least semi-fictional—but your customers and audience could mistake it for reality. And they could make bad decisions based on that, and then they could sue you for misleading them.

What can you do to protect yourself from these lawsuits? Well, you could do what some people in these fields do: just post the disclaimer “for entertainment purposes only”. Then, when a customer sues you because they lost their life savings playing the lotto numbers you gave them in a palm-reading session, you can say: “Look, I told you that wasn’t real! It was just entertainment.”

So what on earth does this have to do with copyright?

Nothing. You’re just parroting some legal-sounding words that you heard somewhere.

Every song, TV show, movie, comic book, and video game that’s on the market is “for entertainment purposes”. They’re still copyrighted.

(I have no idea whether this disclaimer has any real legal power when it comes to palm-reading and reality TV. But it’s meaningless with regard to copyright.)

“I do not own the rights to this work!” #

Then why are you taking an action—posting the work online, or otherwise making a copy of it—which you don’t have the legal right to do? This disclaimer doesn’t absolve you of guilt. It does exactly the opposite: it shouts “I am violating copyright!” from the treetops.

“I do not claim credit for creating this song/video/whatever!” #

Good for you, but that’s completely irrelevant to copyright. Copyright isn’t about who gets credit for a work. It’s about who has the legal right to make copies of the work.

“I claim fair use!” #

Are you sure you know what “fair use” actually means?

Fair use allows the duplication of copyrighted materials in certain specific and limited circumstances. It’s meant to ensure that copyright doesn’t prevent us from creating parodies, reviews and criticism, remixes and collages, and making other reasonable use of copyrighted works, as long as we aren’t doing anything that would dilute the copyright owner’s profits.

Fair use is the reason you can photocopy several pages from a book for purposes of research—but it doesn’t allow you to print copies of the entire book.

In order to qualify as fair use, your duplication of the work must be:

Obviously, uploading an album to YouTube meets neither of these criteria.

You can learn more at Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use site.

“But I found it on the Internet! That means I’m allowed to use it!” #

This simply isn’t true. Just because you found it on Facebook, or Google Image Search, or Twitter, or Tumblr, doesn’t mean that it isn’t copyrighted, or that you’re allowed to ignore the copyright.

Whether or not you’re being charged for something has nothing to do with whether or not it’s copyrighted. Just because a song is broadcast for free on the radio, doesn’t mean you can make copies of that song and distribute them. Just because you can check out a book from the public library for free, doesn’t mean you can print your own copies and give them to friends. Why would the Internet be any different?

Now, copyright infringement is rampant on the Internet. Half of the memes and photos that get shared on Facebook contain copyrighted work that was used without permission. Maybe you’ve assumed that, since it’s so common, it must also be legal.

But it’s not. People get away with it because it’s just not practical for copyright owners to prosecute individual offenders: the sheer scale of the Internet, the cost of hiring lawyers, and the complexity of bringing suit against someone whose name you might not even know (possibly across state and national borders) means that few people actually get caught.

So, yeah: quite often, you can get away with stealing copyrighted works on the Internet. But it’s most certainly not legal to do so.

“But that’s all bullshit! Information wants to be free, man!” #

In many cases, I actually agree with you! But we’re not talking about how things ought to be. We’re talking about how copyright actually works.

In summary:

There is no magical copy-and-paste incantation that renders you exempt from copyright law. (If it were possible to circumvent copyright so easily, don’t you think that copyright owners would have lobbied to close that gaping legal loophole by now?)

In general, any copy-and-paste disclaimer you see online—whether it’s meant to shield you from copyright prosecution on YouTube, reclaim ownership of your posts from Facebook, or achieve any other legal effect—is pure fantasy.

Nothing on this page is meant to argue that current copyright law, or even the notion of copyright in general, is pure and good and wonderful. It’s just an attempt to address the rampant misunderstanding of how copyright actually works.

Header photo: “Head in Hands” by Alex Proimos, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. The sculpture is “Caïn” by Henri Vidal.

Comments? Suggestions?

I intend to improve and expand this page over time. If there’s something I missed, something that’s incorrect, or anything else that needs attention, please let me know.