Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Can you steal an online article?

In a recent post, Dick Eastman used the title, "Steal These Articles!" Essentially, the article explains his copyright policy. He includes an invitation that reads, "I invite you to copy the articles from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter Standard Edition and to publish them elsewhere. You can publish them in your own web site, in newsgroups, in your society's (printed) newsletter, or most anyplace else, as long as it is for non-commercial purposes. I do ask that you attribute the source of the article(s) you publish."

Mr. Eastman provides specific language which he suggests be included with any article that is "re-distributed" and apparently is to be placed at the beginning of any redistribution. The specific language is as follows:
The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at
His article also explains that any permission given for redistribution for commercial purposes must be obtained on a case by case basis. He specifically limits distribution to "non-commercial purposes" under his grant of a limited use license.

What does all this have to do with copyright? I someone copies one of Mr. Eastman's articles and fails to provide the attribution, is that person stealing? What if a person does what I have just done and inserts quotes from the article and provides a very clear attribution? Is that also stealing?

Let's start with this question, if I leave my wallet lying on the counter of a store and someone comes along and picks it up and takes it home, is that stealing? By the way, usually the law refers to the term theft rather than stealing. I will talk in terms of theft. A common legal definition of theft is "A criminal act in which property belonging to another is taken without that person's consent." See The Free Dictionary. In the legal world of criminal law, theft (or stealing) usually has a number of elements. These elements usually include the specific intent to deprive an owner of their property, that the owner had possession of the property at the time of the taking, and that the person committing the theft took possession or control of the property.  You might not want to spend the next couple of years learning about theft, but there are enough variations in this area of the law to constitute a specific area of legal training.

Well, you can probably guess by now, that my example of the wallet left on the counter in a store may or may not be theft depending on whether or not the person losing the wallet is found to have control over the wallet. You can see that determining what is or is not a theft may not be a simple process.

Now, what about copying an article by Mr. Eastman? Can anyone steal an online article? Actually not.
Here is a quote from Wikipedia that explains the issue as well as I could, (I left in the footnotes so you could find out more if you wanted to).
Copyright owners frequently refer to copyright infringement as "theft". In law copyright infringement does not refer to actual theft, but an instance where a person exercises one of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner without authorisation.[6] Courts have distinguished between copyright infringement and theft, holding, for instance, in the United States Supreme Court case Dowling v. United States (1985) that bootleg phonorecords did not constitute stolen property and that "...interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The Copyright Act even employs a separate term of art to define one who misappropriates a copyright... 'an infringer of the copyright.'" In the case of copyright infringement the province guaranteed to the copyright owner by copyright law is invaded, i.e. exclusive rights, but no control, physical or otherwise, is taken over the copyright, nor is the copyright owner wholly deprive of using the copyrighted work or exercising the exclusive rights owned.[7]
So, you might have some serious liability for the unauthorized use of Mr. Eastman's articles, but you cannot steal the article by copying it. Remember, copyright law is a U.S. Federal law defined by statutes and is not a common law criminal act.

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