When is it legally permissible to sample and reuse content? What’s in the public domain? And what is this Creative Commons thing about?

These questions are perpetually important to anyone in digital media, but there have been a number of resources I’ve come across just in the last few days that may be friendly to those curious about these questions.

Fair Use

Seesmic, the video community, has started a discussion with LA-based entertainment lawyer Michael Donaldson about copyright and the oft-misunderstood Fair Use provisions of US copyright law.

Here’s a teaser video; follow through and the Seesmic community asks questions about what the law means:

Mr. Donaldson has also written up a PDF report on fair use and online video. While it’s video-based, it’s worth a look for musicians, as well.

Via wire to the ear

Public Domain

Public Domain covers works that can be used and distributed freely, without restriction. Lifehacker points (via Ars Technica) to an online tool created by the American Library Association:


Digital Sliderule Makes Copyright Law Dead Simple [Lifehacker.com]

Now, "dead simple" to me would be a wild exaageration — you’ll see that various amendments to US law have allowed all sorts of complex loopholes to keep works out of the public domain. But it does make things more visual — even if it requires that you know whether a copyright has been renewed. Notably, the early history of recorded music is rapidly approaching public domain — that is, assuming labels don’t successfully lobby the US Congress to provide new exceptions.

Those of you outside the US, of course, have different laws, though you are subject to US laws wherever you are, if you’re sampling works that have a copyright in the United States.

Confused by Fair Use (which seems to boil down to nearly nothing) and Public Domain (which seems only to cover really ancient work)? That’s the reason the Creative Commons organization has created their alternative licenses, for artists who want their work to be more freely accessible, or those who want to sample and remix works more freely.

Creative Commons

Before making use of Creative Commons, there is a lot to understand. Later today, we’ll talk a little about the back-and-forth between Creative Commons and writer and publisher organization ASCAP, getting into some of the debate over licenses and the subtleties of the licenses. Wherever you stand and whatever your needs as an artist, it’s good to at least get the pitch and see what you think of it.

Here’s "Wanna Work Together?" from 2006, by CC. It’s part education, part propaganda — but it is a good introduction to the basic idea behind the concept, and what it means.

For some, Share and Share Alike is a political and ethical issue, linked to patent law and free / libre / open source code. Here’s a video (sorry, poorly recorded) from O’Reilly’s Ignite presentations. The challenge of Ignite is you have 5 minutes and 20, self-advancing slides, so if she sounds unusually worked up, the time pressure may have something to do with it! (I’m giving one of these this month — more on that soon.) But it does illustrate some of the ethics and philosophy behind the "Commons" idea. There are people who will disagree with some of these ideas — even including people who make use of Creative Commons licenses. That’s a matter for further discussion, though. At the very least, I think Sarah does a good job of encapsulating her ideas in a short amount of time.

Did they get it right?

Here’s the important question — do these tools and videos get their facts straight? Are there other details they miss? Have you seen better explanations in video? Let us know.