Is Your Favorite Public Interest Group (Unnecessarily) Copyrighting Their Work?


When writing articles on legislation for the Congressional wiki I work on,, I often look around at what the various public interest groups have to say about what’s in a bill and what their take on it is. Many groups write their reports so well that I’d often like to just copy and paste their whole take into the wiki, exposing their message to its many readers. Unfortunately, all to often I’m stopped in my tracks by a copyright notice at the bottom of a group’s website. Many – perhaps most – public interest groups are unnecessarily hamstringing their own effectiveness and reach by using the same copyright protections that prevent Mickey Mouse knock-offs and xeroxed Harry Potter books. Our copyright laws are designed to protect profits by keeping information from being freely disseminated, but unlike Disney or Simon & Schuster, most public interest groups want their research, opinions and publications to spread, unencumbered, through the public.

The advent of the Web has infinitely expanded that potential as reports no longer have to be mail-ordered or press releases picked up by reporters to get your message out. That is, unless you copyright your materials, preventing them from finding their way into Wikipedia, blogs or the classroom. You may even be copyrighting materials without knowing it – since 1989, U.S. law assumes an implicit copyright on all published materials, regardless of whether a webpage or document has a copyright notice.

While the “fair use” doctrine allows small portions of copyrighted materials to be reproduced, the Recording Industry Association of America and its ilk have spent millions and threatened and sued tens of thousands to teach us to fear copyright. That fear helps prevent countless groups’ messages from reaching people who will never join those groups’ email lists or directly visit their website. For example, some Wikipedia editors have pleaded with others to “avoid copyright paranoia” by going overboard in their community’s herculean efforts to remove copyrighted material (using a guide as complicated as the law is).

Fortunately there is an easy solution: using one of the so-called “copy-left” licenses. These allow for the easier distribution of material while still retaining ownership of the work and a customizable degree of control over how it is used. Wikis like Wikipedia and Congresspedia typically use the GNU Free Document License, but a less complicated and more customizable option is to use the Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons lets you restrict the re-use of materials to non-commercial purposes, require attribution of the original source and other options described on its how-to page. To best get your materials re-used by big-name bloggers or posted on Wikipedia, consider using the public domain – or “no rights reserved” – option. (Some minor compatibility issues remain between the Creative Commons licenses and the GNU Free Document License used by Wikipedia. We’ve been told those are being worked out, but the easiest way to get materials on Wikipedia is to use the completely unrestricted public domain option.)

For more information, check out this interview with Larry Lessig on “remix culture”, read this piece on how a campaign contributions-stuffed Congress keeps giving media corporations like Disney whatever they want on copyright law, search for Creative Commons licensed works or head to Flickr for their awesome repository of user-submitted copy-lefted images and old public domain photos.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.