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Licensing Intellectual Property: Altering the Default "All Rights Reserved" Copyright Protection

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In recent Internet law posts on IowaBiz, we’ve been addressing some copyright issues facing business bloggers. Today’s blog post will discuss licensing of online works.

Whether a blogger wants to use someone else’s work (often arising when a blogger wants to use an image he or she found online, for example) or whether a blogger wants to instruct others about how his or her own blog material may or may not be used, licensing is an important concept for bloggers to understand.

Licensing, generally. Remember that copyright protection gives the owner of a particular work a number of exclusive rights. A copyright owner may license his or her work in various ways, and licensing essentially “gives up” (usually qualifiedly) one or some combination of the owner’s exclusive rights. That is, a copyright owner may use a license to communicate to others, “here’s exactly how you may use my work – you may use this work under these particular circumstances or pursuant to these particular qualifications/limitations.” 

But why would anyone give up his or her exclusive rights?  Good question. Some copyright owners don’t want to give up exclusive rights. Other times, in the context of promotional works meant to garner marketing benefits for example, a copyright owner finds it beneficial to actually invite certain specified uses or reproductions of the work via a license.  Some view this as essentially licensing “free advertising.” Some even argue that in this world of rampant copyright infringement of online works, instead of relying upon the default (and often misunderstood) “all rights reserved” copyright protection, a copyright owner may actually retain greater practical protection over online material by providing these specific instructions about how a work may or may not be used. The decision whether and under what conditions to license any particular work should be decided on a case-by-case, cost/benefit analysis by the copyright owner.

One type of licensing scheme:  Creative Commons. The Creative Commons establishes one non-exclusive licensing system, and it’s a particularly well-known mechanism for online publishers to specify exactly what others can and can’t do with a particular work. (Note, however, Creative Commons does not recommend using its licenses for software licensing.  You may want to check out licenses listed at Open Source Initiative if you’re looking for software licenses.) A Creative Commons license gives a copyright owner a relatively simple way to communicate to others a “some rights reserved” message rather than an “all rights reserved” message. Bloggers should be sure they understand the details of those rights they're giving up, and the details of each license before adopting such a license, however.  Among the many reasons it's important to understand these details before acting: a Creative Commons license can't be revoked.  Bloggers may want to review the Creative Commons web site, and specifically, the Creative Commons frequently asked questions, for more information and explanations about Creative Commons licensing. (There’s also an “abbreviated” frequently asked questions page – the “frequently frequently asked questions,” if you will.)  

Understand the specific license before using it or relying upon it.  Keep in mind that although it’s well known and offers various licenses itself, Creative Commons is only one licensing mechanism. In any event, bloggers should be sure they understand the ins and outs of any license they decide to use for their own works, as well as the license attached to the use of others’ material they choose to use themselves. Always read (or have your attorney read and explain to you) the legal code behind the licenses, and be sure you understand the legal implications of your chosen course. 

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