Let's start with my personal experience with copyright infringement.
Before I created my own site, I posted many articles at codeproject.com. I like to write on topics that I am interested in to learn them better. Around 2002 I wrote a basic implementation of the game Tetris to learn DirectX and similar technologies. I posted this on CodeProject.com.
The Tetris Company is a very litigious entity, and ownership of game itself is has been surrounded in controversy throughout its existence. In 2007 I received a letter from CodeProject informing me that they had to remove my article from their site because they received a DMCA copyright notice from The Tetris Company.
Then about nine months later, CodeProject sent me another letter indicating that if I were to remove all references to "Tetris" from my article and code, they could repost it on the site. They also included a few legal references for me to help educate myself on copyright law, which I will share in a moment.
After a bit of research I settled on a new name for my game, Quadrino. I removed references to the name "Tetris" and cleaned up my article. CodeProject then reposted it to their site, and I haven't been harrassed by The Tetris Company since then.
If you are interested, you can checkout Quadrino[^] at CodeProject. This version uses DirectX 7 and 8, but it still works. I have a port that I updated to use Direct 2D and added support for Xbox 360 controllers, however, I never polished it up enough to release it.
What Does a Copyright Protect?
(Disclaimer: The following is my understanding and experiences with copyright law. I'm not lawyer and the courts and legal system do not always seem to play out logically to me. Also, it seems to me that what you can prove in a court of law tends to be more valuable than the truth.)
It turns out that a copyright only protects the original expression of an idea, but not the idea itself (which really does lead to a lot of confusion and misinterpretations).
- Lyrics to a song (written or otherwise)
- Written sheet music for a melody
- A recorded version of the singer singing or a musician playing
Other examples of creations that are protected:
- Software Source Code as well as compiled binaries
- Hardware design documents
- Research Papers
- Blog entries
- Internet forum comments
- Technical Manuals
- Parker Brothers's written rules to Monopoly
The name of the game Monopoly is trademarked (a different form of protection, which is also different from a "registered trademark"). The written rules to Monopoly have copyright protection, however, the concept of the game of Monopoly itself cannot be protected in any way. That is why you will see games similar to Monopoly from time to time. Such as a local city themed version of the game with local landmarks, events, celebrities. As long as they write their own version of the rules and avoid the name Monopoly, they can legally sell their game.
This is the aspect of copyrights that allowed me to change the name of my game and avoid any further infringement violations.
Then issues start to arise such as the "look and feel" of a product and so on.
And yes, works published on the Internet are publically accessible, however, they are not considered in the public domain, which means you still hold the copyright to whatever you post. Terms of service for a website may state that by posting content on their site that you give them ownership, a limited use copyright license, or many other things (damn fine print.)
How do you Copyright something?
Step 1: You create it
Congratulations! You have just completed the copyright process to the expression of your idea!
There is only one step. You do not need to put a copyright symbol on the creative work, no date is required, and the "poor man's" copyright is a myth. That is, sending yourself a sealed copy of your work in the mail doesn't gain you anything (you'll actually be out the cost of the envelope and price of shipping, not to mention the "opportunity cost" of what you could have done with your time instead of mailing something to yourself).
Adding the symbols, date, signing with your name etc. helps establish ownership and disambiguate that you are claiming your copy rights. Otherwise, if you can prove that you are the creator of a work, then you automatically own the copyright of that work (and it's what you can prove in a court of law that actually matters.)
This is for works created after 1989, because copyright notices were required before this point. For more details on this, look up the Berne Convention Implementation Act, which makes copyright ownership automatic. If you created your work before 1989 and forgot to properly mark your creative work, you may still be able to claim it. You should consult a lawyer if it matters that much.
I am not going to go into full detail on this, but there is a concept of fair use on copyrights. For the purpose of reviews, references and citations you can use a portion of a creation that is under copy protection. You can also use this content for satire and parodies and to create derivative works.
Supreme Court decisions
- 1994 Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. [Copyright - Fair Use - Parody]
- 1984Sony Corp. of Am. v. Universal City Studios, Inc. [Copyright - Fair Use - Sale and Use of VCRs]
Derivative works are a sticky issue. These works can be derivations of an existing work, but they must be more your work than the original. Beyond that basic notion, my understanding is limited. This is a very gray area. Hell, Google avoided a $9.2B lawsuit against Oracle that has been raging in our courts since 2011, because the jury ruled Google had Fair Use rights to create a derivative work. Many analysts are expecting Oracle to appeal. We'll have to wait and see what happens.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act(DMCA)
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a four-letter word for security researchers and hobbyists, especially section 1201. It was enacted in 1998 and was aimed at protecting the actors, authors, artists and musicians (more accurately studios, publishers, and recording companies) creative works (distributed content) from being illegally pirated on the Internet and other forms of digital media that began to evolve.
One of the clauses and subsequent side-effects of this law (in the United States) prohibits a lawful owner from reverse engineering anti-circumvention provisions in most cases. This has brought John Deere and auto manufacturer's into the spot light recently as they are trying to use this law to prevent security researchers from looking for vulnerabilities in their equipment and maintain a monopoly on the support and repair of these complex systems.
It's some of the side-effects of the DCMA that make me a little jumpy at the threat of being sued. The penalties could reach a fine of $5M and 5 years in prison. For this reason, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is suing the federal government on behalf of Andrew Huang, and Matthew Green. You can read the press release made by the EFF here: EFF Lawsuit Takes on DMCA Section 1201: Research and Technology Restrictions Violate the First Amendment[^].
Wait! What are those sub-clauses in section 1201?
There are a number of sub-clauses in section 1201 that actually give owners of lawfully acquired (i.e., not pirated or stolen) copy written material, to reverse-engineer and circumvent the copyright protection mechanism in a few select instances:
- f. Reverse Engineering for achieving interoperability
- g. Encryption Research
- i. Protection of Personally Identifying Information
- j. Security Testing (Research)
I mentioned this to Matt Green through Twitter, and his response was:
After I read his blog post I asked myself this question:
Even with the law on my side, do I really want to risk getting taken to court by a mega-corporation with deep pockets?
Copyright and patent infringement are civil offenses and are likely only to become a concern for hackers if the goal is to duplicate and manufacture their own product for profit. Regardless of their moral view on if they are entitled to hack systems, violation of one of these IP legal protections is likely to only affect a hacker if their activities will end in a lawsuit and probable loss in an infringement case with the original manufacturer.
Otherwise, the criminal penalties for hacking are much more severe with penalties that could include both jail time and monetary fines. When the topic moves into espionage, a death sentence is even a potential outcome. Therefore, I doubt that any hackers (with the exception of corporate reverse-engineers) even consider the legal violations of IP protection that they are committing.