Monday, February 22, 2016

When Can I Legally Use, Repurpose and Publish Without Permission?

Clearing rights and permissions can be costly. Fortunately, the U.S. Copyright Act places exceptions and limitations on a copyright owner's right to demand a permission fee. Those exceptions and limitations are:  
  • You can build on and share works in the public domain
  • Unembellished ideas, concepts, principles and discoveries are not protected by copyright law. 
  • The use qualifies as a fair use.
  • When the owner has waived their interest in the work.
Below is more information about these important copyright exceptions and limitations. If after reading this you are still unsure whether permission is required, seek permission or the advice of counsel.

1.  The Public Domain (Expired & Lapsed Copyrights)
On January 1, 2022, works from 1926 fell into the public domain in the United States.  On January 1, 2023 copyrighted works from 1927 will enter the public domain, and so on. How long copyright protection lasts depends upon a number of factors, including, the date of publication, the date of the author's death, and in which countries you intend to publish the work.

Post 1977 Works.  For works created after December 31, 1977, the copyright last for 70 years after the author's death.  If a joint work, the
term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Pre-1977 Works.  Before 1978 copyright lasted for 95 years from either registration or initial publication. However, many works fell into the public domain prior to 95 years due to failure to renew. Before 1964, copyright owners were required to renew their copyrights during the 28th year of copyright. If the owner failed to renew,
their copyright was forfeited. 

The Copyright Renewal Trap.  If the public domain work you wish to use is based on a work that is still in copyright, you can't use that work without the permission of the underlying rights owner. For example, while the owners of the motion picture "Rear Window" forfeited copyright by failing to renew their copyright, the owner of the underlying work, a short story by Cornell Woolrich, did renew their copyright. Since the copyright in the film only extended to the new material added by the producers of the film, the owner of the copyright in the underlying short story was able to stop unauthorized distribution of the film. The takeaway? If a work is an adaption of another work, both the underlying rights holder, and the holder of the copyright in the derivative work may hold rights. 

Other Forms of Protection.  Copyright is not the only form of legal protection for creative works. Although a work may be in the public domain for copyright purposes, rights to the material may be protected under other legal theories such as trademark or unfair competition law (which protects against confusingly similar usage by another); the right of privacy (which protects a person's right to be left alone); the right of publicity (which protects an individual’s exclusive right to benefit commercially from his or her name, voice, photograph or likeness). Similarly, works such as databases may be protected under trade secret or contract law in the U.S. and abroad. Further, new or later versions of a work, to the extent the underlying public domain has been embellished with new copyrightable material, may also require permission. 

Protection Abroad for U.S. Public Domain Works. Although a work may be in the public domain in the US, it may still be protected in other countries. For example a work by a US author that is in the public domain in the United States for failure to renew, may still be protected in countries such as Germany, where copyright formalities are abhorred, and duration is based on when the author died, not a specific term of years. If you plan to publish a public domain work abroad, you may be required to obtain permission if the author died within the last 70 years. If you fail to obtain permission, you will expose yourself to the risk of one or more lawsuits overseas.

2. Uncopyrightable Material

There are certain types of works that are immune from copyright protection altogether. Copyright does not protect unadorned or fundamental ideas, concepts, procedures, recipes, principles or discoveries. The same principle applies to facts. Copyright, however, does protect the way ideas, concepts, procedures, principles and discoveries are expressed, explained or illustrated. Be aware that where the dividing line between an unadorned or unprotectable idea lies, and one that is sufficiently developed to enjoy copyright protection, sometimes is hard to discern. As a general rule, copyright does not protect short phrases, names or titles either. However, short phrases, names and titles may be protected by trademark or unfair competition law if they serve a branding purpose. Fortunately, the use of a trademark as a point of reference in a story, or used in a non-deceptive way to criticize a product or service, will generally be deemed a fair or non-infringing use.

3. Fair Use

Fair use allows scholars, researchers and others to borrow or use small (and sometimes large) portions of in-copyright works for socially productive purposes without seeking permission. The doctrine -- which complements the First Amendment -- helps courts avoid rigid application of copyright law where rigid application would "stifle the very creativity which the law is designed to foster." Against this backdrop, fair use can be looked at as a balancing act. It is an imperfect attempt to reconcile the competing ideals of free speech with the property rights of individual creators. 

While invaluable to scholars, the media and business people, it should be noted that fair use is not a right but a defense to copyright infringement. The central point is that fair use determinations involve risk. So, if you can't make the decision yourself, and are risk adverse, seek permission.

To determine whether the use made of a work in a particular instance is a fair use, courts consider the below four factors. No one factor is determinative of the issue, although factor four, which relates to economic harm, weighs heavily in any fair use decision.  
  • The purposes and character of the use, including whether the use is primarily commercial;
  • The nature of the work that's been copied;
  • The amount and importance of what was taken in relation to the original work as a whole;
  • The effect the copying has on the marketability of the original work and its derivatives
Cutting Through the Fair Use Gobbledygook 
While there are no mechanical rules to define with precision what is a fair use, the following considerations, distilled from leading court decisions, will help you assess if a proposed use is likely to be deemed a fair use.        
  • Fair use favors transformative uses. Use the work as a springboard for new insights. Critique the original. Make a connection between it and other works. Use it to buttress your own arguments, or the arguments of others.
  • Since ideas are common property, it's easier to justify use of a factual or informational work than a creative one. That is because teaching, scholarship, research and news reporting are cumulative in ways not typically associated with art and music.
  • Poetry, song lyrics, and visual works enjoy a high degree of protection under copyright law, so, fair use tilts against use of these works.  
  • Quoting from unpublished materials exposes you to greater risk than quoting from published materials. While not determinative in and of itself, if a work is unpublished, that fact weighs against fair use.  
  • Sometimes even a small (but important) portion borrowed from a larger work may constitute copyright infringement. Make sure the amount you use is reasonable in light of the purpose of the copying.
  • Synthesize facts in you own words, keeping in mind that close paraphrasing may constitute copyright infringement if done extensively. 
  • Lack of credit, or improper credit, weighs against finding fair use. However, giving someone appropriate credit, will not, alone, transform an infringing use into a fair use.
  • Parody is a work that that ridicules or mocks another work. Fair use favors parody. It does not favor satire. Make certain the parody is apparent. A conservative approach is to conjure up just enough of the original to convey your parodic points.  
  • Being a non-profit educational institution won't insulate you against liability if you exceed the bounds of permissible fair use.  
  • The most important consideration concerns economic harm. Don't compete with the work you are quoting or copying from. If the use displaces or diminishes the market for the original work, including revenue from licensing fees, it is probably not a fair use. However, the more transformative the work, the less likely the displacement of sales will be determinative.  
4. Creative Commons
Creative Commons Buttons
  Creative Commons licenses are standardized licenses give the public permission to share and use a creative work on conditions set by the copyright owner. While neither an exception nor limitation on copyright, by clearly stating what is, and is not, a permissible use, CC licenses short circuits the need to seek formal permission. A CC license button (or link to the license) will appear in close proximity to the work. If you violate the terms of a CC license, in addition to termination of the license, the potential consequences include compensatory or statutory damages, or an injunction. Therefore, you must read a CC license very carefully.

If you plan to make use of a work that does not fall within the above four safe havens, then you must obtain a license or permission from the owner of the work. Begin the process early. Locating rights holders is not always easy, and negotiating rights and permissions takes time.

Finally, don't be afraid to negotiate rates with the rights holder, keeping in mind that non-profit organizations often receive more favorable permission quotes.   Also, if the amount you want to use is small, or the use will promote the rights holder, or contribute to the public good in a significant way, fees may be reduced or waived.  But, don't count on it.  

Additional Resources:
Classroom Use Guidelines (not legal authority; but agreed-upon minimums)
DISCLAIMER: This article discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.   It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the information contained in this article.  When in doubt, seek permission or the advice of counsel.

LLOYD JASSIN is a New York-based copyright, publishing and entertainment attorney.  He is co-author of the Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step- by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors and Publishers (John Wiley &; Sons, Inc.).   Lloyd has written extensively on negotiating contracts in the publishing and entertainment industries, and lectures frequently on contract and copyright issues affecting creators and their publisher partners.  A long-time supporter of independent presses, he is First Amendment counsel to the Independent Book Publishers Association  (IBPA) and sits on the advisory board of The Beacon Press, one of America's oldest independent presses. 

He may reached at or at (212) 354-4442.  His offices are located in the heart of Times Square, in The Paramount Bldg., at 1501 Broadway, FL 12, NYC, 10036.  Follow the Law Firm and Lloyd on Twitter at

No comments:

Post a Comment