Blog Writing: Your First Amendment Rights and Copyright Law

The bedrock of a democracy is the ability to freely exchange ideas and information. Blogging face unique challenges since blogged works generally do not pass editorial review as do its print edition cousins. Since bloggers often reference and quote the works of other authors in their pieces, they need to be aware of not only their first amendment rights but copyright law as well. In addition, astrology bloggers work with a body of knowledge that is in constant discussion in the astrological community. This is illustrated with the proliferation of astrology books, newspaper and magazine articles and columns, lectures and conferences that have exploded in the astrological community within the past forty years. It makes it difficult to discern what is common knowledge and what is material protected under the law. Fortunately we have two pieces of law that help us navigate these areas.

The First Amendment
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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The United States Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but it does not allow you to infringe on the copyrights of an individual.

Copyright gives the author of an original work exclusive right for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation, after which time the work is said to enter the public domain. Copyright applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete and fixed in a medium.

A work needs to be a “fixed medium” to qualify for copyright protection. Discussions in public forums, such as a lecture or a meeting are not protected by copyright. Care needs to be exercised if an individual intends to copyright “any expressible form of an idea”. He or she should not discuss these ideas in a public forum before they are “in a fixed medium” if he intends to exercise an exclusive right to that work.
There are distinct exceptions to copyright law.

Fair Use
“Fair Use” certain uses of copyrighted works are protected under our First Amendment rights. These uses include:
Criticism
Commentary
News Reporting
Parody
Other “transformative “ uses
The U. S. Office of Copyrights explains:

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

The U. S. Office of Copyrights cautions care in the use of copyrighted material for quotations:

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

This makes sense. It would be unwise to put an arbitrary limit on the number of words that can be quoted. For instance, should the government mandate a limit of 250 words, then most, if not all of a short blog post could be used. A balance must be struck on a case-by-case basis at the hands of the author as to what should be used to cite a source or illustrate a point. Generally though, the shortest amount of material should be used that adequately illustrates your point. Remember to attribute your quotation to the person whose work you are citing.

Certain Things Cannot Be Copyrighted:

The law also states that a fact is not an original work of authorship. Facts owe their origin to the thing or person that makes them happen. For example, if a reporter wrote a newspaper article about a building fire, she could not copyright the facts about the fire because those facts do not owe their origin to her.


Facts discovered through research, no matter how new and amazing, also do not owe their origin to the researcher. However, the ways facts are recorded — style, choice and arrangement of words — are copyrightable. For example, although an author could not copyright an idea for a new foreign policy strategy, she could copyright her expression of that idea in a newspaper article.

Specific works that cannot be copyrighted are:

Works lacking originality
U.S. government works
Items in the public domain
Facts and unoriginal compilations of facts, like the phone book
Freeware (but NOT shareware which can be protected)

The First Amendment is a guarantee protecting our right to communicate and freely discuss thoughts and ideas. The intent of Copyright law is to protect the property rights of an individual who has created an original work whose style, choice and arrangement of the material is separate and distinct from works before it and that has been placed in a “fixed medium”.

Disclaimer: This work is not intended to substitute for legal advice. As with anything, if you have questions you should consult a qualified professional.

Photo published under a Creative Commons License from Flickr.

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Beth Turnage authors Astrology Explored as well as being publisher of Astrology Media Press. Beth is available for private consultations. You can contact Beth at starrynightastro@aol.com.
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