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The Sun editorial: Copyright infringement and the media

HAMBURG — Shia LaBeouf of “Transformers” fame has been in the spotlight recently, not because of his acting chops, but because of his creative liberties.

LaBeouf, whose short film “Howard Cantour” premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival, is being accused of taking a lot of his material from a comic book written by Daniel Clowes. Not only did LaBeouf not credit his source in any way, he has recently taken to Twitter to mock the case against him, according to USA Today.

Clowes is threatening to sue the actor and director and, if other plagiarism cases are a foreshadowing of things to come, the case could nicely pad the pockets of that previously little-known cartoonist.

The Associated Press has defined copyright as the “right of an author to control the reproduction and use of any creative expression that has been fixed in tangible form, such as on paper or computer disk.” The AP went on to say that the First Amendment is not a “valid claim for copyright infringement under the Copyright Act,” which protects individuals’ ownership of their literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictoral, graphic and sculptural works, as well as motion pictures and sound recordings.

When I first started working in journalism, I was surprised at the public’s lack of understanding about copyright coverage of intellectual property (which includes products of the mind, according to the Digital Media Law Project).

Most people are familiar with laws that keep individuals and businesses from reproducing things such as software, product designs and logos. But a lot of people apparently do not realize that laws also protect creations by people like journalists and photographers.

We receive requests to reprint stories from other publications on a pretty regular basis. Most of the time, these suggested articles are from local news sources such as The Buffalo News, but sometimes are from even farther locales.

When Hamburg was featured in a New York Times article a few months ago, I received five or six requests to reprint that article in The Sun.

With all due respect to the local community members who were proud – and rightly so – of Hamburg’s being in the spotlight, acquiescing to those requests would have thrown The Sun into a legal mess.

According to the DMLP, copyright allows the original owner of a piece (such as a news story or photograph) the “exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute it, display or perform it.” That protection typically lasts for 70 years beyond the death of the original author.

For the most part, The Sun publishes unique content, written by either our in-house or freelance staff members, or by individuals in the community who send us their information.

As soon as our creative ideas are put onto paper, our work is immediately placed under copyright protection. Just as Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” books are copyrighted, so too are the crayoned designs of your 4-year-old nephew. If it originated in your mind, you own it.

Writers, photographers, musicians and other creative professionals work very hard to perfect their work and deserve to be taken seriously and respected for their originality and creativity.

This newspaper cannot legally reproduce stories printed by another publication, without written permission. Even if we had the space and need to reprint full stories owned by another news source, we could not do so, legally.

What we could potentially do is act upon the ideas expressed in those articles. Copyright does not protect things that are that intangible.

While we cannot republish another publication’s story about the roundabouts in Hamburg, for instance, or print a photo of a local clock pulled off of someone’s Facebook page, we could gather our own information, take our own photos and write our own stories about those local features.

What journalists can also do is quote sources. We cannot reprint full stories in their entirety, but we can attribute quotes or paraphrases to their original authors, to give our news articles accuracy and legitimacy.

Thankfully, our published works are also protected, under the same copyright laws.

I want our readers to know how much we appreciate their taking a personal interest in this paper. We still welcome story ideas and love when our readers contact us with a good story.

But, at the end of the day, news stories and photographs belong to their original creators. We would not appreciate someone else’s reprinting our work without permission, and we must also respect other journalists’s legal rights.

“Don’t ever make the mistake of committing an act that infringes on copyrights of others,” warned Web publisher Romeo Cayabyab. “If a lawsuit is brought against you, that is going to be very costly. Your reputation is at stake, too.”
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