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Five things you should know about intellectual copyright and online sharing

Rewind to 1999. Napster, the first major peer-to-peer networks is launched. Its goal? To allow internet users the facility to share and distribute music files freely to hundreds of thousands of network users. It wasn’t long, however, before record companies began to cry foul, citing that the network was aiding piracy and infringing on the copyright of music artists. Napster, or at least its first incarnation, was eventually shutdown in 2001 and overall, online sharing was considered by many corporations and intellectual property (IP) activists, at the time, to be a major threat to IP rights.

Fast forward to today. With its foundation cemented in social networks and cloud computing, network sharing appears to have regained favour. Most online activities revolve around sharing and distributing large amounts of personal information and IP. Most of us assume that we have a right to distribute as much data and information as we like. In fact, most online companies encourage us to share more content more often with other users. But why? What has changed in the last 10 years that has seen companies relax views on IP and allows users to distribute information so freely?

Bottom line — nothing. It’s just a change in perception, not a change in IP law or IP rights. Most online users don’t bother to read the terms and conditions on collaborative and social networks before agreeing to them. Often, it is assumed that because a network is driven by sharing, users have a right to distribute whatever material they choose, even if it is copyrighted. So to make things a little clearer, here are the answers to five common questions regarding the distribution of intellectual property online:

  1. Can share anything I want?
  2. No. You may think that you are able to share whatever videos, pictures, music or data you want, but in reality, you are still bound by the same laws and regulations that got Napster and other peer-to-peer networks into so much trouble in the early 2000s. If you read the fine print of any network’s terms and conditions of use, you’ll find that they all have clauses regarding the distribution of copyrighted content. All social networks and collaborative services have sections detailing their obligation to report copyright infringement and suspend the accounts of those who they deem to be distributing copyrighted material.

    The key difference between these networks and networks like Napster however, is that they do not encourage users to download the media which they share. Instead, they are seen as networks which host a variety of media that users showcase to their social audience.

  3. So if I don’t download it, I can share it?
  4. Yes and no. IP is tricky, especially when dealing with copyright. It has to be remembered that these networks were originally envisioned as platforms for internet users to share their own material — personal photographs, home videos, maybe a recording of an unsigned band trying to gain exposure, not for the re-distribution of popular mainstream media. Obviously, there is no issue in sharing your own IP. The key problem arises when you choose to showcase the work of others without their consent. To put it simply, you are broadcasting copyrighted material, and in order to do this most countries stipulate that you require the express prior consent of the author. Without this, you are infringing on their copyright and engaging in the illegal broadcast of protected material.

  5. But then why haven’t sites like YouTube been shut down?
  6. This is where reading those terms and conditions can be quite useful. Most social and collaborative networks stipulate that by posting content online, you either have permission from the author to distribute their work, or you own the explicit rights to media being shared. By clicking on the “I Agree” button, when first registering with the site, you take full legal responsibility for the data which you choose to share with other users.

    In addition, media companies have also realised the benefits of sharing snippets of their works with mass audiences. Most mainstream media houses enter into lucrative advertising deals with YouTube which ensures their financial well-being.

  7. So if I find mainstream media posted online, I can share it legally?
  8. Technically, yes. Most sites stipulate that once uploaded, users give both the network and other users the right to share, modify, broadcast and reproduce their IP to whomever they choose. Even users of services like Prezi and Google, which offer private sharing, give permission for the service and those within the private network to freely distribute, modify and share private IP.

  9. What about my rights?
  10. You will always keep the rights to the content you upload — provided that it was yours to start with. Sharing is a great way to gain exposure and to collaborate ideas. But in doing so, you also give others the right to distribute and use your IP however they see fit. Ultimately, the protection of your IP is your responsibility. On the one hand, if you feel that sharing could make or break your career, it’s probably best to steer clear of online collaboration; but on the other, sharing knowledge could expand careers far beyond the scope of individual capabilities. Overall, IP protection comes down to judgement and balance, utilising that which is shared and incorporating into private production.

Author | Sandra Pitcher

Sandra Pitcher
Sandra is a techno-geek who is generally excited by anything with buttons, touch screens or flashing lights. Currently, she is a contract lecturer at both the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg) and Varsity College, specialising in social media, journalism and ethics, while simultaneously trying to grapple with a PhD... More
  • kwiens

    I’m disappointed that this article doesn’t include information on Creative Commons Licences. 

  • Thanks for introducing online IP back into the conversation Sandra. Though it may not be obvious, because the law doesn’t appear that thrilling at first glance, this is one of the most exciting spaces of fundamental change on the Internet!

    We’re all keenly aware of how technology has shifted our behaviour, politics, economics, but assume that the law is immutable. Porting traditional copyright into the fluid online realm is troublesome and often stifles collaboration in science and education. The fuzzy exceptions of fair dealing/fair use aren’t robust enough to give clear paths through. 

    It isn’t all handbrake as IP law meets the Web, there is one notably powerful exception.

    A decade ago Creative Commons emerged from Stanford University to offer legally strong and technically-fluent options for those who wanted to build extra options on top of traditional copyright where they found that the law was lagging. Not just for scientists (http://sciencecommons.org) or educators (http://oercommons.org), but photographers, filmmakers, academic scholars, musicians (http://creatievcommons.org) but also big businesses like Nike & BestBuy who are tinkering with expanding their patents (http://greenxchange.cc). TED videos are CC licensed, as is Wikipedia. Governments are employing CC standards, Australia, New Zealand and all White House documentation: (http://creativecommons.org/government).

    It may be worth your while exploring this in your scholarship as well as future articles. 
    Max Kaizen (Creative Commons, South Africa http://za.creativecommons.org)

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