Copyright is a complicated thing. Members of the HEMA community participate in an activity that is inextricably linked with material that may well be copyrighted in some fashion, and therefore it is helpful to understand what copyright is and how it works, so that we can talk about it intelligently and avoid falling into any awkward legal situations.
What is copyright?
In short, copyright is the right to copy a work once it has been created.
Whenever you create something, whether it is a painting or a photograph or a piece of music or a piece of writing, you have copyright over that piece of work. This gives you the legal right to copy it as much as you want, while prohibiting anyone else from copying it without your permission.
If you write a book, then this prevents people from copying and pasting your work into their own book and selling it themselves, denying you any potential income from your work that you might make by charging some kind of fee for access to it. If you take a photo or make a video or otherwise create some kind of graphic or visual asset, copyright prevents other people from copying it and using it on all of their own websites or publications and denying you any potential income from your work.
Copyright is clearly beneficial for people who create things, as it lets you retain legal ownership and control of the work, and either to give or to deny permission for other people to copy it for their own purposes, as you see fit. It gives you the opportunity to earn income from your work and protects you from people who try to pass off the work as their own in order to gain income from it themselves while denying that income to you.
Copyright usually lasts for the duration of the creator’s life, plus some number of years. In the UK and the United States, at the time of writing this piece, the duration of copyright is the life of the creator plus 70 years (so that the creator’s family or heir can benefit from the copyright held by the estate).
In the United States, this rule of thumb applies to works created after the 1st of January 1978, and special rules apply to works created by more than one creator, works created anonymously, and works created (but not published or copyrighted) prior to the 1st of January 1978. [source]
There are no such rules in the UK, as far as I am aware. [source]
What is public domain?
A work is considered to be in the public domain once the copyright has expired. This means that there are no longer any special rules about who may or may not copy the work; anyone may copy and reproduce the work in any fashion, for any purpose.
However, two works might be of an equal age, while one is in the public domain and the other is still covered by copyright. For example, if you imagine that two people published their work on the same day in 1921, the two works would be the same age today, around 98 years old. If one of these creators died in 1923, then the work would have remained under copyright until 1993 (70 years after the death), after which time it would have returned to the public domain. If the other creator had published the work at a younger age, and therefore lived until 1960, then that work would remain controlled by copyright until 2030 (70 years after the death). Both works in this example are the same age because they were both published in 1921, but one of them remained in copyright for significantly longer.
How does copyright work?
In the UK and the United States, you typically gain copyright of a work the moment you create it (unless you are creating it as part of paid employment, when the copyright may belong to the employer). There is no need to register it in any fashion (although having some way to prove that you created it could be helpful should such a question reach the courts).
When you hold the copyright to a work you have created, you can give or withhold permission for people to copy and reproduce it in any fashion.
If you do not hold the copyright for a work, but if you want to copy it and reproduce it in some fashion, you need to find the copyright holder and ask for their permission to reproduce their work.
Sometimes, copyright holders will say yes, just because you asked nicely. Sometimes, the copyright holder may ask for a licence fee or royalty in exchange for giving you permission to copy and reproduce their work. Or maybe they will just say no, because the work is something they want to retain control over for whatever reason.
If you have permission from the copyright holder to reproduce a work for a particular reason, then you are free to reproduce it within the parameters of your agreement. If you do not gain permission from the copyright holder, but go ahead and reproduce it anyway, then you might be risking some quite serious penalties under copyright legislation, because you broke the law and copied someone else’s intellectual property without permission.
Copyright is not a particularly difficult concept, but it might take a little while to get your head around it. The better you understand the issue, the better you will understand so much of modern life and business!
The summary of this article is that copyright exists to protect the people who create works, so that the works cannot be copied without their permission. It forces people who want to copy, duplicate, or reproduce other people’s work to ask the copyright holder for permission before making those copies.
Although we often hear of copyright in connection with big companies using (abusing?) the laws around copyright to shut down individuals and smaller companies, this isn’t the entirety of the story. Copyright laws, at their heart, are designed to give some protection to individuals who produce things, and to give them control over who may copy their work.
Thanks and disclaimer
I would like to thank Brian Puckett for his input on this from the United States perspective, and for general proofreading and suggested edits. The article is much stronger for his input!
I am not a lawyer specialising in copyright legislation (and neither is Brian), and this article should not be considered formal legal advice. Instead, this article covers certain general legal information that is not necessarily applicable to any specific legal matter. It is intended to be an introduction to the ideas of copyright and how they may apply to the community – no more than that.
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.