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Copyright Law in One Easy Lesson

A few months ago I taught a course based upon information taught to me by my Cherokee Elders. This information involved universal symbols used by our medicine society as well as by four other tribes that I know of. I used the handouts my Elders had given me, and fleshed it out with the lessons I had learned concerning each of the symbols. A few days after the seminar was over I was accused of plagiarism, and set out on the road toward a greater understanding of copyright law. Even though I have been exonerated in this case, the damage done to several friendships has prompted me to share what I have learned so that others will not have this problem in the future.

Copyright law is all about who has the right to copy and who does not. This is best understood by looking at what it takes for something to be copyrighted. Simply put, any original work put in a tangible form, be it written formally or on a scrap of paper, in an e-mail, drawn, painted, sculpted or composed, recorded on tapes, CDs, DVDs, or by any other tangible medium is automatically copyrighted to the person who did it. And, a copyright carries five rights: The right to 1. make copies; 2. sell or distribute; 3. make adaptations; 4. to perform; and 5. to publicly display. All copyrighters are called authors, and then this applies equally to artists, composers and sculptors. And, the copyright lasts for the duration of the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. According to the law currently on the books, everything written or recorded before 1923 in now considered to be "in the public domain". That means that it is no longer copyrighted, and anyone may use it or sell it.

As with all things concerning the law, there are some exceptions. For example, it is unlawful to copyright ideas, facts, titles or symbols. Here is a case in point - Around fifteen years ago a lady named Diane Stein wrote a book entitled "Essential Reiki" in which she published the symbols for a system of energetic healing that had never been published before. The book was copyrighted, and yet many other people since then have published those same symbols in other works. However, they were not allowed to copy what she had written about the symbols. Another exception is musical performances by churches and other religious institutions in the process of their services. They are not required to have permission for such performances.

Copyright infringement comes about when someone uses the tangible property of someone else in a way not protected by the law. If you violate someone's copyright and they find out about it then you are likely to be served with a court order to cease and desist immediately or face criminal charges. However, the author may not sue you for damages unless the copyright is registered with the Federal Copyright Office. This is done by sending in a copy of the work along with copyright form PA and $45.00. I have written seventeen books, and my wife as written at least twice that many songs. At $45 each that would be quite expensive, but you can allay the costs somewhat by registering them as either collections of music or art, for example, or of sets or volumes of books.

Copyright forms can be obtained online at, and it can take up to six months or more to get your registration number. However, you are covered just as soon as you apply. This is a good thing to do if you self-publish, but if you have a publisher then they will take care of this detail.

In the case of the problem I had, a book had been published by the followers of a medicine man in the Lakota Tribe. They were just trying to protect their teacher, and make some money for him all of which is good. I have a friend who is a part of the Hidatsa (matriarchal) portion of the Lakota, and she told me about this later on. Some of my Elders were angry about this, and they gave a bunch of us copies of his original chapter cover pages without telling us where they came from. That was wrong, and they were set straight on this. And, I have since read this Lakota man's book, and give a purchased copy of it to all of my students to suppliment my own materials. In this way, we both win and profit from the situation.

There are a few myths going around about copyrights, and one of the worst is the notion called the "Poor Man's Copyright". In this idea, you put a copy of your completed work in an envolpe, and have it mailed to yourself. This wastes time, money and a copy of your material as it does not register your work. That can only be done through the copyright office. When I found out the truth of this, I got to empty out a whole file drawer of envelopes and their contents.

The registration process does not get you an ISBN (catalog) number. I have been told that this can be done through, but I do not know this for a fact. Again, if you have a publisher then they will take care of this for you.

This has been a brief overview of copyrighting, and I hope that it helps you.