At a public forum today, an OpenSim grid executive told the audience that creators could lose their intellectual property rights if their work is copied.
This is a common — and harmful — myth that may keep creators from sharing their work.
In fact, you cannot lose your copyright if people copy your work — no matter how much it is copied. Your work will not fall into the public domain if someone copybots it or rips it.
Otherwise, all the record companies out there would have to stop suing downloaders (and they don’t). They keep their copyright even if a song is distributed on a thousand different networks and illegally downloaded a million times.
You also can’t lose your copyright if you don’t defend it. You can ignore violators for years — then come back later, and sue them all. Widespread infringement could reduce the market value of your work, and the courts could award you a smaller settlement, but the copyright would still be yours.
You don’t lose your copyright if you don’t register the work. You don’t lose your copyright if you distribute you work under a Creative Commons license. You don’t lose your copyright if you give someone non-exclusive rights to your work. For more information, read “Copyright Myths” at PlagiarismToday. and the “Copyright Basics” from the U.S. Copyright Office.
Here is how you do lose your copyright:
1. Sell or transfer your copyright
If you sell or transfer your copyright to someone else, they now own the copyright. If you only license the work to them, then you retain the original copyright — they just get the right to use it according to the terms of license agreement.
The transfer of copyright takes place via a signed contract by the actual person who originally created the work or their authorized agent. In other words, if someone’s avatar tells you, “You can have the copyright to my work,” get it in writing. Otherwise, it’s not legally binding, and they can go after you later for infringing.
Similarly, if a Second Life creator says, “I give up, I’m sick of all this infringement. Do what you want. I hope you choke on it, you lousy hackers!” they’re not actually giving up their copyright. They’re just expressing their personal dissatisfaction. They can change their mind at any time, come back, and start suing people. Now, those other people may argue that “Do what you want” implied a license to use the work. It would be up to the courts to decide.
2. Sign a “work for hire” agreement
When you work for a company — or are a freelancer who signed a “work for hire” agreement — everything you create belongs to the company.
Again, this agreement must be legally signed. If it’s an avatar who says, “I’ll build this for you, and you have all the rights to it,” ask for a written, legal agreement signed by the actual person or their legal representative. Even Miley Cyrus signed her contracts with the name “Destiny Hope Cyrus” — until she legally changed it in 2008.
So unless your builder is actually, legally called “Flowerchild Elvenwhisperer” — which does happen — ask for their legal name on the work for hire contract.
3. Die and wait 70 years.
There’s one last way to lose your copyright. You can die, and then sit around and wait for 70 years. During that time, your heirs will get to enjoy your copyright. Though you probably won’t.
Actually, the length of time varies based on the country you’re in, whether you created the work as an employee of a corporation, or whether the work was created before or after 1978, among other factors.
So go ahead and take reasonable steps to protect your work. File DMCA notices against infringers. And don’t let the jackals get you down. Even if you can’t get them today, that doesn’t mean you can’t go after them tomorrow.
Losing a trademark
What you can lose, if it gets into common use, is your trademark.
This has happened to aspirin, escalator, butterscotch, zipper, yo-yo, thermos, and heroin.
Companies like Xerox, Google, and LEGO fight hard to avoid having their words become generic synonyms for “photocopy,” “search” and “building block.” They do it by reminding journalists and everyone else not to use the words generically, and trying to convince dictionary creators and trademark authorities that this hasn’t already happened.