Copyright: The right you have in the U.S., guaranteed by the Constitution, to control who makes copies of your original Intellectual Property (text, images, etc). Copyright is the right you have to say who can make copies of your work.
Copywriter: A type of writer who writes sales copy. Has nothing to do with the control of Intellectual Property mentioned above.
Now, on with my story....
In another thread a newbie was pondering whether or not to use something that might be copyrighted. He concluded by saying,
"I'm not sure how to proceed. Some say its better to ask forgiveness than permission...."
That is the #1 Copyright error... proceeding without being sure if the text, image of other intellectual property you want to use is copyrighted or not. No, I'm not a lawyer, but as a writer and publisher of long standing I know the ropes. After reading this general information, you may wish to consult a lawyer.
Some Copyright Basics
1. According to the U.S. Copyright Office there are some things that cannot be copyrighted.... like titles, names, slogans, ideas and facts. This page is worth reading: U.S. Copyright Office - What Does Copyright Protect? (FAQ).
Remember, however, that some of these things can be Trademarked, so you want to check trademark registrations before using one. You can check trademark registrations here: http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/process/search/
2. There are some things free for all, like Intellectual Property in the Public Domain (everything before 1923 and lots of stuff afterward, but you need to verify each item after 1923 with the U.S. Copyright Office)... and everything created by the U.S.Government (including military)... but not by U.S. Government Contractors.
3. People can use copyrighted material under the "Fair Use Doctrine" However, that is not a license to steal Intellectual Property, but a legal defense if you are challenged. There are tight rules governing such use which are outlined here: U.S. Copyright Office - Fair Use
4. Everything anyone creates is automatically copyrighted, and you don't need a copyright bug (c) on it. However, if you ever want to bring a copyright infringement case against someone [edited- and get punitive damages, not just actual damages], you must have registered your copyright, which you can do online here: U.S. Copyright Office - Online Services (eCO: Electronic Copyright Office)
The Sad Story
So should you seek forgiveness instead of getting permission? NO! Take a look at the sad story of these professional Copywriters... they used just ONE PHOTO without permission and had to pay $4,000 for copyright infringement.
Read the whole story here: Legal Lesson Learned: Copywriter Pays $4,000 for $10 Photo | Webcopyplus Web Copywriter Blog
What This Means
Next time you are tempted to grab text off a web site or an image from the Google image search, think twice. Lawyers now have a "Business model" based on shaking down the unwary. Here is a story about their tactics: Righthaven gives no warning to copyright infringers - Intellectual Property Lawyer Blog
Many IM people are copying stuff. It is far better to exercise your own creativity in writing, and to purchase, and keep records of, royalty-free images you purchase.
If you hire work done, be sure to get a release from the vendor that it is 100% original work.
If if use copyrighted materials, you may become the target of one of these new Intellectual Property lawyers who are out to get you if you cross the line. Copying one copyrighted paragraph, or one image, could be very expensive.
As I mentioned, it used to be that copyrighted items needed a copyright notice (c) so people would know, but that hasn't been the law for about 20 years now. Unmarked items may still be under copyright and it's your responsibility to check. Yes--it is impossible to check many things, and that's a Catch 22. Be careful.