Copyright Infringement and the Internet

Many of us enjoy “pinning” images onto virtual boards on Pinterest. The digital computer site, which describes itself as “a tool for collecting and organizing things you love,” is a fun way to grab and keep photos of items you want to remember—home ideas and details, travel photos, recipes, gardening ideas, wedding details, and many others.

Heck, the popular Pinterest notion was even developed by a native son, Ben Silbermann, a graduate of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

But could we get in trouble by pinning some of these photos? What about copyright laws? Could the Pinterest police be watching us?

Ambiguous nature

It’s just one example of the ambiguous nature of the Internet. “The whole area of copyright infringement is a murky, murky area,” says attorney Brian Pingel of the BrownWinick law firm in Des Moines. “Let’s just say that lots of individuals and companies have gotten trapped. And certainly, they don’t always commit the infringements on purpose. There’s just not enough knowledge out there. Problems arise because the laws can’t keep up with the changes in technology. And you as a user can’t tell if pieces of art are copyrighted or not.”

In a seemingly innocuous situation, Pingel says, “I have actually had a case involving some Iowa State University students who got in legal trouble for downloading music from the Internet. The fines were huge, in the thousands of dollars. They didn’t own the rights to the music, of course. How would you like to make that phone call to your parents?”

Pingel says those who do own the rights to materials can sue for from $750 to $30,000 per infringement.

David Nelmark, an attorney with the Belin McCormick law firm in Des Moines, says that young people in particular have grown up with social media, and copyright has simply seldom been discussed.

Copyright protection is available to both published and unpublished works. “If you are taking notes as we talk, you have copyright protection on your notes,” he says. “Not everything has to have a copyright notice—© and a date and name—to be copyrighted. Many think without that notice, anything on the Internet is in public domain and free to use, and that’s not true.”

Public domain

Material “in the public domain” is intellectual property or a work that isn’t copyrighted. Nearly all work before the 20th century is not copyrighted. For example, a musician may interpret “Silent Night” in his own style because it is in public domain. However, if he makes a video playing “Silent Night,” the video is protected by copyright.

One aspect of copyright infringement involves plagiarism. Nelmark explains that is the act of passing off words or ideas produced by someone else as one’s own. “For example, if a college student copies someone else’s words in a term paper without citing the source, that’s plagiarism. These days colleges have computer software that can detect the infractions.”

Does giving attribution, or credit where credit is due, take care of the matter? “Attribution certainly helps,” Pingel explains, “but you could still get in trouble. It’s best to contact the source and ask for permission to use a photo, for example. Then you put ‘Used with Permission’ next to the photo. That certainly helps to cover your bases.” A real sticky wicket can develop when one person uses a photo, for example, without permission and uses it for profit.

History lesson

The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to enact copyright laws. The first copyright laws were enacted in 1790. Then in 1976, following international law, copyright was extended to the author, creator, or photographer for 50 years after his or her death.

On October 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the law to extend the terms of all copyrights existing at the time by 20 years. In other words, now the time extension goes to 70 years after death. This was to protect Americans and to keep in line with the same protection extended to Europeans.

Another murky area is blogging. “Bloggers often have trouble with others picking up their information, such as text, photos, or illustrations,” Nelmark points out. “Bloggers can do searches to see if their work is being repeated. Photographers can do the same thing.”

It’s a matter of self-policing, he says. “If there’s a continuing problem, creators of information, graphics, photos, and the like can issue a ‘cease and desist’ order to those doing the infringing. After that, matters can be taken to civil court.”

The bottom line bears repeating: Be careful. The laws haven’t kept up with the changes in technology.