07 April 2014

Ole Man Jones, Mushroom Huntin', Chianina Cattle, and Copyight in the Dirt

[This post about old farming practices somehow turned into one on copyright.]

Some days I think I learned everything I need to know about copyright on the farm.

Jones' Old Style Farm Techniques

As a kid, I never understood the way old man Jones* farmed south of town. His corn was never as green as that of his neighbors, it was always full of weeds, and the rows didn't even look really straight. When I asked Dad what was wrong, he said Jones was farming the way they did forty years ago and probably wasn't going to change. However, it was Jones' property and it was his to do with as he saw fit. The neighbors probably thought they could have "gotten more good out of that farm," and that Jones probably wasn't making any money off the land, but that didn't matter.

The neighbors had no right to it--even if they could utilize it in a better way. The amount of money he made was not the point. Jones paid his taxes and that was all that mattered.

Copyright works the same way--it's not about whether the writer is making money off the material he writes. The writer of the material can use it as they see fit--just like Jones did his farm.

Mushroom Huntin'

We'd occasionally go mushroom hunting when I was a kid. I never really liked morels, but that didn't matter, we went hunting for them anyway. I was always well-aware of the property line on west pasture, the back forty, and any other timber we had. Farm kids always know where the property line is--it was ingrained from childhood and from time spent fixing fence. And...no matter how many mushrooms you might see on the other side of the fence on the neighbor's property, you kept your rear on your own place. We weren't to go trespassing on the neighbor's property and we weren't to take anything off the neighbor's property--not even mushrooms they were just going to let die and would never notice.** We didn't want anyone trespassing on our place and we afforded others the same respect.

Copyright works the same way. You don't take what is not yours and tell others that it is. Of course you can use small amounts under "fair use," but you can't use larger amounts of someone else's material. I never thought to take just one mushroom under "fair use."

Chianina Cattle

Of course, the neighbor can't copyright ideas or facts. If  he starts raising Chianina cattle and appears to be turning a profit, there's nothing to stop me from raising my own.

What Does This Have to Do With Copyright?

Of course, I cannot copyright specific facts about my ancestor, just like my neighbor can't stop me from raising Chianina cattle. But I do have copyright to creative material I write about my ancestor and I have a right to that material whether I make money from it or not, just like old man Jones was entitled to farm in a manner less productive than his neighbors. I also have the right not to have others steal my material, just like I wasn't supposed to take mushrooms off the neighbor's land.

The details of copyright may be a a little murky, but the essence of it--it's all right there, plain as dirt.

* name changed
** we were only allowed to go on the neighbor's property if one of the cows got out onto the neighbor's property and as soon as she was back in, you could be certain we'd be fixin' fence.

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