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Greetings! I’m a writer, editor, and teacher, and I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers. From 2017 to 2021, I served as Alabama's Poet Laureate. I call this blog and website "A Map of the World" because I think that, as writers, we each map the world through our own lives and imaginations. Welcome to my particular map! To get in touch, you can email me at forjenhorne@gmail.com or find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/for.jen.horne where I post a Mid-Week Poetry Break every Wednesday.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Elvis Sightings and Copyright Law

My Elvis sighting: reincarnated as a deer . . .

One evening, my husband and I were sitting around discussing copyright law. Maybe “wondering about” is the better phrase—copyright law is complicated and you probably should be sitting down when you try to figure it out. Our reason for even beginning to tangle with its complexities was that we’d been talking about an author, now gone, whose work we like, and we started getting curious about whether his stories were in the public domain and could be collected and published.

The U.S. Copyright Office’s information in the “Copyright Basics” section of the website was pretty clear about public domain:  “Essentially, all works first published in the United States before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain in the United States. The public domain also extends to works published between 1923 and 1963 on which copyright registrations were not renewed.” 

The law gets more complicated in regard to later works, says the Copyright Office guide:

“The term of copyright protection depends upon the date of creation. A work created on or after January 1, 1978, is ordinarily protected by copyright from the moment of its creation until 70 years after the author's death.
For works made for hire, anonymous works and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
For works created, published or registered before January 1, 1978, or for more detailed information, you may wish to refer to the public domain section of this guide.”

The public domain section sends you to a great little chart. The law makes a distinction between date of creation and date of publication and also takes into account when the author died and a set period of time after that. We finally decided that it’s possible we might be able to collect and publish at least some of that author’s work, so that evening’s discussion was tabled (or couched, since we were now sitting in the living room) until we wanted to look further into the project.

Looking at the website though, had yielded a couple of unexpected gems in the Frequently Asked Questions section. Among the standard questions you’d expect—“How do I protect my idea?” and “How do I copyright a name, title, slogan or logo?”—was “Can I get a star named after me and claim copyright to it?” Apparently this question, which had never occurred to me, is common enough that it’s listed among the FAQs. I imagined the hundreds (thousands? more?) Americans who are longing not only to have a star named after them but to protect the naming of it with copyright. Maybe NASA could make use of this apparent nascent desire among the populace to be celestially recognized.

Better even than that, though, was question number ten of twelve:  “Can I protect my sighting of Elvis?” Sadly, you cannot. But there’s a glimmer of hope:

“Copyright law does not protect sightings. However, copyright law will protect your photo (or other depiction) of your sighting of Elvis. File your claim to copyright online by means of the electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Pay the fee online and attach a copy of your photo. For more information on registering a copyright, see SL-35. No one can lawfully use your photo of your sighting, although someone else may file his own photo of his sighting. Copyright law protects the original photograph, not the subject of the photograph.” 

The intersection of Elvis sightings and copyright law has got to be one of the great juxtapositions of pop culture and legal language, and the wording of the answer to the question bears a bit of explicating. Nowhere is there a hint of doubt or condescension about the veracity of your Elvis sighting; for the purposes of law, the answer doesn’t question the sighting. It even reassures you that you have the right for “your photo (or other depiction)” to be protected from unlawful use.

If, however, your grandmother experienced an Elvis sighting and you wish to reproduce her photograph, you could run into trouble, as the plaintive question “My local copying store will not make reproductions of old family photographs. What can I do?” suggests. The answer to that question is found in a section with a catchy title that sounds like a country music song: “Can I Use Someone Else’s Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?” (I can’t copyright that title, by the way, so if it inspires you, knock yourself out.)

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