Copyright, “Copyleft”, Creative Commons, Public Domain, Anti-Copyright

Recently, I got asked a few things about copyright, by a friend, and I guess copyright was a bone of contention. Others in an organization with her had been trying to post a book written by her. The impression I got was that people don’t know what copyright is. This article tries to address this.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across misunderstandings. I am not an attorney, but I became aware of copyright issues back in the 1980s, when microcomputer video game piracy was widespread and considered a big problem, and people were experimenting with things like “shareware” and releasing code into the public domain.

While it might seem odd that computer users would know about this, if you think about it, it makes sense. Computer programming is a type of writing, and it’s covered by both copyright and patents. Computers made copying easy. Intellectual property, in the form of software, was the basis of the microcomputer software business. The software was delivered on tapes or disks that were extremely easy to copy.

As the Internet grew, copyright issues grew. So, here we are.

What is Copyright?

It’s basically two things:

  • The right to make and distribute copies of a work.
  • The right to make a derivative work.

A Few Misconceptions About Copyright

  1. Copyright is when a company makes it impossible to copy a file, CD, or diskette. Add DRM to this.
  2. If you post something on the Internet (or Twitter, or Facebook), you have lost the copyright.
    • If it’s on the Internet, you’re free to copy it.
  3. If you own the original, you own the copyright.
  4. If you bought a copy of a song, and made a music video, you can post it to YouTube.

All of the above are not true.

  1. If a company bothers to make it’s content difficult to copy, that is a form of “copy prevention” or “digital rights management” (DRM). It’s not copyright. Copyright belongs, initially, to the author (or the company that hired the writer). Consider music that’s on the Internet. The songwriter can assign it to another company, like a record company. That company might license it to another company, like Apple Music, or Spotify, or Amazon, that might add “protection”. In that scenario, the copyright belongs to the record company because it was assigned the copyright.
  2. If you post something you created on the Internet, it’s going to be almost impossible to prevent someone from copying it, but you still retain the copyright. If you found something on the Internet and copied it, the copyright still belongs to the creator – and you may have violated their copyright. The ease of copying doesn’t change who owns the copyright.
  3. If you buy some artwork from an artist, you own the artwork, but you don’t own the copyright. The copyright still belongs to the artist, at least under California law. The artist controls whether photos of the work, which are considered derivative works, can be made. Likewise, if you own the manuscript of a written work, that doesn’t mean that you can now make copies of the book.
  4. Nope. The copy you bought is just a copy, and doesn’t confer any copyright to you. The reason why so many songs and clips are posted to YouTube is because Google did a lot of work to pre-license entire libraries of content. So, when users posted songs, they weren’t pulled down, because Google had already gotten a license on behalf of its users. (This is also why all the other streaming sites are screwed. The cost to license all that material is prohibitively expensive.)

There’s a lot more listed at 10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained.

If you’re wondering about art, read Art Copyright, Explained. Art copyright is interesting because it contradicts what many people think are copyrights that come from owning an object.

There are some important loopholes to copyright:

  • Fair Use – the right to excerpt or show a thumbnail to discuss the work, or satirize it.
  • First Sale Doctrine combined with Fair Use – allows a seller to publish a photo of a copyrighted work, for the purpose of selling an object.

Derivative Works

A derivative work is based upon another work. Examples:

  • A collage that incorporates a photo.
  • A translation.
  • A copy in a different medium.
  • A new musical arrangement.
  • A motion picture version.

Copyrights restrict the right to create a derivative work. A translation, for example, is not considered a new work. The copyright for it belongs to the owner of the copyright of the work in the original language.

If the copyright owner authorized the creation of a derivative work, then the author of the derivative work has a copyright to their own work.

The act of rewriting a text is a gray area. According to Rules for Rewriting Copyrighted Text, rewriters need to avoid using any of the original work. The Nerd Writer Mom blog disagrees: Is Rewriting a Copyright Violation? (I tend to think like the latter.)


I first saw “anti-copyright” in the late 1990s, in some ‘zine, probably an anarchist one. It jumped out to me because I was aware of the GNU General Public License, which I’ll discuss later, and “anti-copyright” was reminiscent of that.

For a while, it became trendy to use “anti-copyright” on your work, and to encourage people to copy the article and pass it along. The question was, and remains, “what exactly does it mean, within the context of copyrights?”

I think that anti-copyright is founded on a misunderstanding of copyright. People assumed that “copyright” meant that it couldn’t be copied. Thus, “anti-copyright” would mean that it could be copied.

It seemed, to me, that the copyright oligarchs had infected our minds with false information, and people misunderstood what copyright was.

So, I would assert that “anti-copyright” is largely meaningless, but implies something like “Creative Commons Share Alike”. More on what that means later, but first we need to talk about the GPL, which is similar to “share alike”.

The GPL and Copyleft

Prior to the “anti-copyright” trend in zines, way back in 1988, Richard Stallman invented the GNU General Public License, a software license that allowed people to redistribute the source code to software. It did a lot more than that, but that’s what germane to this blog post. In The History of the GPL it’s described as:

A hack on the copyright system, it turns the concept of copyright upside down, creates a whole community cooperating around the world and enables the development of software by the people, of the people and for the people.

The GPL is also called “copyleft”, a little joke because the GPL helps to create a “software commons” resembling communism.

However, it doesn’t dispose of copyright to achieve a software commons. All GPL code has a copyright notice, and is protected by copyrights. The “hack on the copyright system” is that the GPL allows derivative works to be created, and copies to be distributed.

More importantly, it mandates that derivative works must also be covered by the GPL.

Thus, if I made a derivative work of GPL’d work, my work would also allow derivative works to be made. This is sometimes called “virality”.

(Right wing libertarians in the computer scene correctly saw that “virality” was an impediment to commercial acceptance of GPL software, and created a whole other class of contracts called “Open Source“, which allowed for contracts that allowed companies to privatize derivative work. Stallman’s response was not as zealous as this essay, but he said Open Source was not Free, and he’s been proven correct.)

After a while, the “copyleft” also came to be used in some anarchist zines. Again… it has no explicit meaning, but probably means “Share Alike”.

Creative Commons

You’ve probably seen the “Creative Commons” license on the Web. Creative Commons was founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred with the support of Center for the Public Domain. In 2002, they released a set of copyright licenses that were inspired by the GPL, and sought to create a “creative commons” for written, photographic, visual, and musical works.

All Creative Commons (CC) licensed works are copyrighted, but have licenses that allow people to distribute works, and, possibly, to create derivative works.

You can find the conditions at the CC website. They have a tool to mix and match conditions and guide you to an appropriate copyright license to apply to your work.

The license that’s most like GPL is the Attribution-Share-Alike, which states that a derivative work is allowed, as long as the derivative work also carries the Attribution-Share-Alike license.

Global South Criticisms of Creative Commons and Open Source

The gist of the criticism was that the Global North had vast and significant intellectual property laws, which were basically hegemonic. The Global South usually ignored the idea of intellectual property, and copied freely.

These “gentler” copyright licenses were seen as a Trojan horse that would allow Northern copyright regimes to enter these countries, which often relied on violating Northern IP, by doing things like copying drugs, copying textbooks, and other IP.

Public Domain

Before copyright existed, we had a “natural state of man” situation, and we could call that the Public Domain. The Global South, above, operates like the public domain.

Works in the public domain can be duplicated and distributed by anyone, because the work is not copyrighted.

I can put this page into the public domain, with this simple declaration:

I, John Kawakami, put the essay on this web page into the public domain.

Now, anyone can copy and distribute it, and also make a derivative work.

The twist here, in the neoliberal, privatized world, is that someone can now take this essay, and republish it for profit. They can also make a derivative text and then copyright that work!

You can even do it. Just copy it. You can now put your name into the byline.

It seems wrong, but it’s completely allowed, and acceptable, within the public domain.

Within the copyright hegemony, it’s difficult for a public domain to survive when confronted with capitalism that seeks to privatize public domain works.






Leave a Reply