[Originally Broadcast on
Public Radio]

About Copyrights

"These are the best of times and the worst of times. It is the age of foolishness, it is the age of belief; it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness; it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair; we have everything before us, we have nothing before us; we are all going directly to Heaven or we are all going directly to hell."

Everybody likes to sound intelligent. And if you hadn't heard those words before, you might think I was a pretty clever writer. But alas, those are the words of Charles Dickens; it's the opening passage from his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. I simply made a couple of small changes, like saying hell instead of the way Dickens referred to it, as "the other place."

But what's the harm in that? Why shouldn't I take the credit for it? Hey…I found it on the Internet and there was nothing that said I couldn't use it. Everybody does it.

The boss wants a report, Human Resources wants a sample of your writing, you've got an assignment due and you want to sound clever. And suddenly, there it is! The perfectly worded explanation; you couldn't have said it better yourself. So you cut [clipping sound] and paste [slapping sound] and there it is. What a wonderful world we live in. The public library is just a point and click away.

But consider this. When someone reads that brilliant piece of writing they either recognize it and discount your remarks because they know you didn't come up with them. Or they don't recognize it and they're deluded into thinking your some kind of literary genius. Or worse yet, the original author is still alive and you find yourself in a courtroom being sued for copyright violation.

But there's a simple way to avoid all of this. If you get something from somewhere else, give them credit. Don't assume that because it's on the Internet it's fair game. The copyright on Dickens works, just like Dickens himself, expired a long time ago, but you can save yourself a lot of embarrassment by letting others know that you aren't a thief.

Did I say thief? You bet. If you take my car (though I don't know why you'd want it) and pretend it's yours, that's theft. And if you take my words and pretend they're yours, that's theft too. They don't have to be formally copyrighted. As long as I can prove I said them first, they're mine. And, as far as the law is concerned, the moment I create something and put it in a tangible form-that means writing it down--it's protected. And if I take you to court, all I need to do is prove that I created it on the date I claim I did.

This applies regardless of whether or not you intended to copy it. That's right. If you're writing something a couple of weeks from now and you use the words I've said today, even if you forgot where you heard them, you're libel for a copyright suit.

In 1970 George Harrison recorded a song called "My Sweet Lord." It became a hit, but shortly thereafter a company called Bright Tunes sued Harrison for copyright infringement, claiming that his song was the same as a song called "He's So Fine" recorded by The Chiffons in 1962. And eventually, a judge found Harrison guilty of "subconscious plagiarism." Harrison had to pay Bright Music $587,000.* That's half of the royalties Harrison received for the album on which that song appeared.

This is Dr. Write and these remarks may not be published, broadcast, or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of WAMC-Radio and Dr. Write. But I could be wrong.

[* http://abbeyrd.best.vwh.net/mysweet.htm]