Our Mission

Every day, your life is touched by copyright law. Snapping a photo, listening to music, even the act of reading this webpage all put you in the realm of copyright law, even if you never see it directly.

Every now and then, though, copyright law, and the muddled state it’s in, reveals itself in a bizarre story: someone gets sued for selling used textbooks, or singing a hundred-year-old song. A great new music or video streaming service is declared illegal, then legal again, then left in limbo. Or sometimes, it’s just the whole range of arguments that crop up when one artist accuses another of ripping them off.

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Can I play a movie DVD at a friendly get-together in my home?

The short answer is yes.

We’ve all had friends over to watch movies or TV shows. And, as a general rule, that’s allowed by copyright law; copyright holders can’t prohibit you from marathoning Downton Abbey blu-rays with your best friend, even if they want to.

Copyright holders can, however, authorize (and prohibit) “public performances” of their copyrighted work. The real question is how big a gathering has to be before it’s considered “public.” Small to mid-sized social gatherings don’t generally make the cut because they’re not open to the public at large—in other words, strangers can’t walk in and plop down for a showing. However, if you threw a giant, open-invitation event attended mostly by strangers, you may have a problem.

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Can I rip my DVDs to my iPad?

This sounds like a simple question, but the answer is much more complicated (and frustrating) because there’s more than one law at work here.

The basic answer is: Yes, it is likely legal to rip a DVD to your iPad; but most consumers who rip a DVD to an iPad still face legal consequences.

DVDs typically include embedded technology intended to prevent consumers from making copies. This so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM), works as a sort of digital lock that movie studios (and anyone else encrypting digital content) use to control how consumers use the content. DRM is what makes it difficult to make a back-up copy of a DVD or rip the film to an iPad or any other device. To make a copy, you have to break, or circumvent, the digital lock, and doing that violates a separate law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—even if you’re not breaking the law when you make the copy in the first place.

Additionally, movie studios claim that when consumers purchase a DVD, they are not actually purchasing the film on the disc. Instead, they are buying access to view the film via the format of the type of media they purchased. In other words, they say consumers buy the ability to watch the DVD on a DVD player, but they don’t own the copy of the movie that sits on the DVD.

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Can I quote a newspaper article on my blog?

Yes, you can usually quote a newspaper article (or a website, or a book) on your blog. Quoting excerpts of protected works is typically considered a “fair use” of the work, and doesn’t require getting permission. “Fair use” is a broad concept that covers a number of different uses, and quoting an article to engage with it, e.g. through commentary or criticism, is among the most fundamental of such uses.

A classic example of where quoting an article is a fair use would be when a blog post author breaks down the contents of an article or a post on another website, and offers commentary, whether supportive or critical, on the original work. Another example is quoting an excerpt from an article in a discussion forum, or on Facebook, in order to generate discussion among users.

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What is fair use?

Fair use is how we keep copyright laws from preventing beneficial uses of copyrighted works, like for news reporting commentary, criticism, research, and educational uses. In deciding whether or not a use is fair, Congress has directed courts to consider, at a minimum, four factors. These four factors are 1) the purpose and character of the use, 2) the nature of the work being copied, 3) the amount and substantiality of the copied material, and 4) the effect of the use on the market for the original work.

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Can I take pictures of street art?

Taking a photo of a visual work is making a reproduction of it—which means copyright alw gets involved—but that’s not all it is. Other laws might apply, too.

As a general rule, when you are lawfully in a public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain sight, even if what you see is private property. If you’re on private property, such as a private museum or a gallery, then your right to photograph anything you see is subject to the property owner’s permission.

As for copyright, though, that comes into play with respect to the subject of your photography. Street art presents a case where a work might have copyright protections, but is also plainly visible from public spaces. Taking a picture of the work means you’ve created a reproduction, one of the acts covered by copyright law. If you take a photograph of just the artwork, and then attempt to sell prints of the photo, the artist has an excellent claim against you. But what if you use the photo for personal use only? Although it’s unlikely that there will be someone to stop you from taking the photograph, or using the photograph for personal use, like printing it and framing it for your wall, or using it as a desktop wallpaper on your computer, that’s still a technical violation of the law.

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Can I make copies of a magazine article for my class?

It depends. Although there are specific, limited exceptions in the law for educators, they’re generally related to playing videos or music, or displaying images, in class. Unfortunately, there is no clear and broad right to make copies of articles or book excerpts for classroom use. That isn’t to say all copying is forbidden. Rather it means certain copying is permitted as a “fair use,” depending on the facts and circumstances of each use.

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Can I sell my CDs? What about my digital music downloads?

It might seem silly to have to remind people of this, but yes, you can sell your old CDs, DVDs, books, vinyl records, and console games.

Although copyright law gives the copyright holder the right to prevent people from “distributing” copies of their works, there’s a big limitation to that right: You can sell, lend, or give away any copies that you own, as long as they were made legally.

So that means you can resell, lend or give away any legally produced copies that you own.

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Can I sell my old cellphone?

Yes. Assuming there are no contracts to the contrary (hopefully, you’re not trying to sell a rental), you can sell your phone. But there’s one odd caveat.

Why are we even asking this? One reason to think about it in the context of copyright is that the phone will contain copyrighted software on it. Even if you uninstall all of your apps, wipe the storage, and cancel your services (all of which and more you definitely should do before handing it over), the phone will likely still be carrying copyrighted software in the form of the operating system and firmware that makes it run. But if you hand those programs over with the phone that holds them, you should be in the clear—just as if you had handed over a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray to a buyer.

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