If you are sitting at a restaurant and the waiters arrive carrying a desert and singing “Happy Birthday” to a patron nearby a few thoughts may run through your head. Perhaps you think it’s sweet or even embarrassing, but the question you may want to ask is: is it legal? Copyright issues surrounding the song are vague and contradictory, but for many other works copyright law is the be-all, end-all in a question of whether something is legal. In The Creative Artist’s Legal Guide: Copyright, Trademark, and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production, Bill Seiter and Ellen Seiter detail ways to ensure that your works won’t get caught in the copyright debate, the difference between copyrights and trademarks, and what you need to know about contracts. The book is informative both to those interested in going into film, music, or television production, but also those interested in the politics and history behind much of what we see and hear on a daily basis providing a great resource and additional reading suggestions for those looking to learn more.
Copyright law is a complex and changing set of legislation that has undergone four major updates since 1909. Under original copyright law in the 1700s the term of protection was 14 years with a 14 year renewal possible. Now, after the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1988 (also commonly referred to as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act), the term is the authors lifetime plus 70 years or 120 years for material under corporate ownership. The corporate ownership term garnered the act the Mickey Mouse Protection Act nickname by ensuring that iconic Disney characters like Steamboat Willie would not be part of the public domain until 2023. Disney was among the companies that asked copyright to be extended to protect their intellectual property. Copyright law is also complex for those materials that would be under copyright, but the record of who owns the copyright has been lost. There may be millions of pieces of art, literature, and music that have been orphaned after records were lost or their creators passed away. These orphaned works remain a question mark for those practicing copyright law, but in today’s fast-paced digital world it is not the only question mark.
What is almost as common as seeing a Disney or other trademarked character, hearing a song from a well-known musical, or watching a movies is dealing with the terms and conditions of a website. Terms and conditions exist in most websites that contained copyrighted content or have social media platforms. For the most part, people do not pay much attention to these terms, but when they do they might be surprised at what they find, and what they have agreed too. As Seiter and Seiter note, “sites change their terms of service from time to time, in furtherance of their business models and in pursuit of their content streams and revenue streams that feed them.” You have to look no further than social media behemoth Facebook to see what can happen when companies change their terms and conditions–leading to negative responses from users. Facebook was forced to remove the stipulation in their terms and conditions stating that they owned any content (videos, photos etc.) posted by users after widespread protest and media coverage.
Copyright law applies to such a diverse collection of works that it may not seem as if there is a connection between them all, but one day you might just get a letter from Universal (who owns the copyright to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) or Warner Music Group (who owns the copyright to Happy Birthday) telling you to cease and desist. It might just be helpful to know what laws you should follow and what is stipulated in the terms and conditions you were supposed to read.