Copyright law in the age of e-mail

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

This column is intended to be instructional. The idea is to convey information you can use. It's all part of our friendly service and comes at no extra charge. There's a chance of failure, however. You may already understand the point the column attempts to make. You may finish it thinking, "That was obvious." Or, you may finish the column wondering "What was that all about?"

Here goes.

Everything you find in print is not yours, mine or anyone else's to reprint.

Copyright is an area of law that addresses "the rights of authors to control the reproduction and use of their creative expressions that have been fixed in tangible form."

The quote is from page 372 of the "Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual" - a publication, coincidentally, that is protected by copyright.

My use of the quote is what the courts consider to be an example of "fair use" of copyrighted material. Courts have identified several such examples. Important rules of thumb for fair use are found on page 373 of the AP Stylebook and read in part:

"In using copyright material in a news story or column, writers should make sure that no more of a copyrighted work than is necessary for a proper purpose is used...

"The use of an entire copyrighted work is almost never fair. ...

"Moreover, proper attribution cannot transform an infringing use into a fair one."

The guidelines from which I am quoting amount to about 650 words. I have excerpted 74 words - no more of the copyrighted work than I found necessary or consider fair. I provided proper attribution, although that would not have saved me if I had published the entire Stylebook section on copyright guidelines without obtaining the permission of the Associated Press. The fact that I bought the book doesn't matter.

I would love to share the Stylebook's guides to capitalization, abbreviation, spelling, numbers, punctuation, libel and copyright with our readers, but I am forbidden by law from doing so in large verbatim chunks.

I've used the AP Stylebook as an example. The same copyright law applies to the content of the Empire and other newspapers, magazines, books and many Internet Web sites.

Frequently readers forward to me articles they have photocopied or clipped from other newspapers and magazines. Increasingly, the articles arrive in the form of e-mails that have been copied off the Web sites of newspapers and magazines.

Accompanying notes on paper or in e-mails encourage the Empire to reprint these "interesting" or "important" articles which readers suggest have applicability to Juneau. A couple of times readers have explained that it is OK to reprint the attached article because they contacted the author or the publication and obtained permission to do so.

Mail subscriptions and the advent of photocopying machines and personal computers make it easy to access the content of distant publications. But neither accessibility nor the ease of copying and conveying override copyright law.

I'm not a lawyer. It may be OK for someone to copy an article and send it to me. But I know it's not OK for me to reprint the article. Copying and reprinting may seem harmless, but the Empire must obey the law or become the equivalent of a fencing operation.

Yet almost every edition of the Empire includes articles reprinted from a variety of other newspapers - the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News and other dailies. How can that be legal?

The Empire buys the right to reprint them. Newspapers in the Knight-Ridder, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post groups, for example, pool the best of their daily articles and distribute them for a fee. We subscribe and pass along the articles to you.

Our publication of the articles in the Empire or posting them on our Web site does not remove the owner's copyright. In fact, our reprints sometimes include the original copyright notice, and, we copyright the content of the entire Empire.

So, this is about the law and the law is about fairness. And if I don't reprint the articles you send me from New York, Seattle, Anchorage, etc. that's the reason.

Steve Reed is the managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at

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