Copyright for Activists and Artists

For supplemental materials including links to free public domain and creative commons materials, click here.

Copyright law is totally complex and confusing and hypocritical. Sometimes it works to protect artists and actually does promote the creation of new materials, while other times it just protects corporate financial interests and restricts innovation. No matter what aspect of activism you are working in, from creating ‘zines or t-shirts or making fliers for a benefit show, you’re gonna be dealing with copyright issues. I don’t know how many posters I’ve made using found art. Working in a subculture, we are a lot less likely to be caught for infringement, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Warner Bros., for example, is really protective of the Harry Potter franchise. There was a big to do some years back when they started sending out cease and desist letters to people running Harry Potter fansites. We are talking about kids, like teens and tweens. There was one girl who was 16 at the time, and she totally fought it by organizing a worldwide boycott of all things Harry Potter (except the books, b/c they didn’t have anything against JK Rowling). And when they saw a loss in profits, WB backed down. I wanted to open with this story because it shows how corporate copyright holders use copyright law to bully the public and stifle creativity, but also how people can instigate changes through community organizing.

So the purpose of my part of this presentation is to inform you all on first of all, what is copyright, how to avoid infringement, and why its important to advocate for a bigger and better public domain.

1. What is copyright?
The purpose of copyright is meant to promote the arts and sciences while still providing some sort of incentive for creators to keep on creating new works. Statute of Anne (1710) in Britain helped authors, as publishers were reprinting works to the detriment of authors. This gave authors rights for 14 years. Originally just for printed works, but now copyright is involved in almost every aspect of commercial life.

Requirements for protection:

An original work in fixed medium. You don’t need to file for copyright; it is automatic once you create something in a tangible form. So an idea is NOT copyrightable, but a drawing or poem written on a napkin IS.

Exclusive Rights – There are a few rights that copyright owners receive automatically:

Produce copies

Import/Export the work

Creating Derivative Works

Performance right (the right to perform or display the work)

Sell or assign rights to another

Broadcasting rights (the right to transmit the work by radio or video)

2. How to avoid infringement

If you are borrowing materials in your work, you have a few options. The first is Fair Use. Basically, Fair Use allows for the use of copyrighted material for scholarly and educational purposes. Copyright law is supposed to NOT stifle creativity, so this is where Fair Use comes into play. Fair Use can cover teachers showing videos to their classrooms, to people remixing videos for satirical purposes or to provide social commentary.

If you are straight up borrowing a copyrighted work, you can’t just copy and paste. You have to ADD VALUE to it, making it a new work. (See Fair Use analysis handout)

Public Domain: PD materials are those that are completely owned by the public. This normally happens when a copyright expires, but sometimes creators want put their work in the public domain because they believe in communal goods, or maybe they just don’t care about attribution or making money off their work. In the past, the public domain has gotten a bad rap as being a kind of graveyard for old, unwanted books, but organizations like the Librivox, Guttenberg and the Creative Commons have kind of revitalized.

Creative Commons licensing: As activists, it is important to make our work accessible and available to the public not only to use, but to utilize to create new works. By making our work available for others to use, we create a community of artists all working together to make rad material.

The creative commons licensing is a way to do this and still maintain some rights over your material. While materials in the public domain are public property, a creative commons license allows you to still maintain some rights, but be more flexible about the copyright. One of the most common types of cc licenses is that of attribution: The material can be used for anything, but the original creator must be given credit for the use of their work. You can also do things like allow the material to be used for any purpose EXCEPT commercial ventures. If people were planning on making money in the use of your material, they would need to contact you and get your permission (or pay royalties).

Royalty-free images:

If you want to use found images in your works, there are a ton of places to find royalty-free images. You can also search online in public domain or creative commons image databases. For example, when you search Flickr, you can actually limit your search to only pics that have creative commons licenses, so you can find images that you can use. There are databases for tons of other art forms, including text, music, and motion pictures.

To recap, we’ve got

1.) Fair Use, where you are straight up just using copyrighted material, but you are using it for “educational” purposes;

2.) Use material that is freely available through Creative Commons licenses or are in the Public Domain;

3.) You can get permission to use the work; or

4.) You can just use copyrighted material and hope the copyright owners don’t find out or don’t care, or its possible that you might want to fight harsh copyright laws by blatantly breaking them. Either way, even in subculture, corporate copyright holders can be harsh.

3. Collective Ownership

When you are creating new works of art, you really have a lot of options: You can maintain creative control of your work by using copyright law to its fullest; you can attach a creative commons license so you retain some control over your work, but still encourage people to use and build off of your work; or you can donate it to the public domain, forgoing any rights, but nobly making your work free and accessible to all.

Borrowing from others is not new. How many times has Romeo and Juliet been remade? Does that mean that any new version could not possibly bring its own unique spin to a story that is hundreds of years old?

Something that corporate copyright owners often fail to see is that when you allow people to borrow materials, it is like free advertising for the original. As a musician, I would love it if some kids made a remix video and used my music in it. Maybe people would be too busy looking at the video to notice the music, but maybe some people might be like, who is this, I want to look them up on myspace. And then they come to my shows and maybe even buy the CD or (god forbid) write bandfic. And beyond any profit, the whole concept of building a community around a shared passion, whether it is music or a book or character or whatever, if people are actively engaged in and participating in the creation of culture, I think that is rad. And that’s why I think the Creative Commons and the Public Domain are so important.

Copyright is basically restricting people from using old material to create innovative new material. As creators and consumers, it is important for us to make sure we don’t get caught infringing, but also doing what we can to fight copyright censors.


There are two things at work here: Being aware of the law and not getting caught infringing on copyright, but also attempting to change copyright law. Obviously, no one wants to be sued for copyright infringement, but there is something to be said for confronting copyright head on. Recently, Nina Paley made an animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, based on an Indian folk legend, and used recordings from the 1920s by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, who is virtually unknown in modern times. Though the recordings are now in the public domain, the compositions are not, and the corporate copyright owners were demanding $220,000 for clearance rights, which is WAY more than the movie itself cost to make. Instead of backing down like most people do, she fought them head on, and they eventually brought the price down to $50,000. She ended up borrowing money to settle the clearance, then made gave the work a creative commons attribution/share-alike license. This is a quote from Nina Paley’s website about the film:

“You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom. “