David Bushnell, in his article entitled “Understanding Copyright and Licenses”, writes “Understanding copyright and licenses allows us to do what we do best: be creative.” (http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/06/14/understanding-copyright-and-licenses/) and he’s right–everything we create is built on the knowledge and ideas of others. Yet, I would bet that most people have almost no understanding of copyright and licensing, and most believe it’s simply too complicated to understand. What happens is that we end up with black and white beliefs about usage that are just plain false: things are either “don’t touch my stuff unless you pay up” or “take freely with no restrictions”, and the gray area that exists between the two, referred to by the term “fair use”.
Copyrights were established primarily to encourage creativity by protecting the rights of the creators/discoverers in order to insure that they received benefits for their work: recognition, money, etc. For the public good, limits were established on the length of time the copyright would remain in effect. After that time, the work would go into the Public Domain. Fair Use was established to allow for commentary, clarification, parody, research, education, and other similar activities, but “The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.” (http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)
But even with all of these protections in place, this system has many faults including that they often bound the creator of the work themselves.
If I publish a written work (book, paper, etc) through a publisher, I sell my rights to the company in order for that work to be published. In fact, it is not me the writer that owns the copyright, but the publisher and I must abide by the same copyright rules everyone else must abide by. This copyright applies even to my own derivative works. What I do receive is a portion of the profits from the book for a time, and of course my name must be associated with use of my work. For the most part, that has worked out well, but not always. And sometimes copyright laws make it so that works are less well known than they would’ve been otherwise, because access is limited. Sometimes organic advertising of a piece is the best way for someone’s work to become well known–just think of all those viral videos on YouTube!
Newer forms of licensing (Creative Commons for example) grant a creator with much greater control over how and when their work can be used, while providing more opportunity for creativity inspired by the work, or based on the work. While understanding the licenses, and how they work, may take a bit of time to learn, understanding them is not out of reach for the common man. In fact, there is a little game, that was part of the Open Licensing unit, that is perfect for understanding how to use Creative Commons Licensing and how to use creations with a Creative Commons License on them: http://indstudy1.org/univ/355460515034/Flash/Lesson2/PracticeVersion.html