It was recently big news in legal and banking circles when Citigroup, the American investment banking and financial services corporation, claimed to own the words “thank you” and filed suit against AT&T for infringing on its intellectual property.
For many years, Citigroup has used the words THANKYOU, CITI THANKYOU and similar terms as part of its customer loyalty programs. How dare AT&T use “AT&T THANKS” in its new marketing campaign?
This got us thinking: We, too, could make some words all caps, squish them together, and own them. We’ll be calling our trademark lawyer to get him working on IAMALWAYSRIGHT and LISTENTOYOURMOTHER. When the substitute teacher writes LISTENTOYOURTEACHER on the blackboard, he won’t even know he’s treading on thin ice. We could file a lawsuit.
We’ve been writers for more than 25 years, and we know that words belong to the person who wrote them. That’s why we’re thrilled when we get a byline and see our names in print. We know enough to attribute quotes when we refer to something someone else has written. We taught our kids that they couldn’t copy straight out of the encyclopedia or just cut and paste from Wikipedia.
“Yes, you need to put quote marks around ‘I have a dream,’ unless it’s you dreaming about an ice cream sundae for dessert.”
The copy center clerk knows you can get in trouble for photocopying when you don’t own the copyright. But when we brought in a newspaper clipping of an article we had written, the clerk refused to help us resize and copy it. We took out our driver’s licenses to prove we were the authors, and that still wasn’t good enough.
“All rights revert back to the author one week after publication!” we shouted, trying to impress him by flaunting our copyright knowledge, but it was no use.We felt like criminals when we had to push the “print” button on our own to make 10 copies of our article. We’ve been unknowingly violating copyrights and skirting the law for years.
Until recently, Warner/Chappell Music owned the rights to the classic song “Happy Birthday.” Violators caught singing the song in public risked a $150,000 fine. Well, we’ve done that hundreds of time. Through the years, when we belted out “Happy Birthday” at our kids’ parties in bowling alleys, skating rinks, and mini golf courses (public places), we knew we were risking embarrassment but not possible arrest and a hefty fine. Happily, last December the song entered the public domain. Phew! We have a birthday coming up next week and we know we’ll be singing.
We’ve gotten away with violating a music copyright, but one of our sons did not. Back in the day when online music sharing sites were born, our kids were thrilled to be able to download “free music” from Napster. We weren’t thrilled when we got angry emails from our internet service provider, warning us that our computer had been traced to illegal music downloads and cautioning us to cease and desist. Now our kids can get all the free music they want from Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes, because it’s our credit card that’s saved in the account.
As bloggers, we need photos to illustrate our words, so when Pinterest and Google Images became popular, we were happy to click and copy like everyone else. If we were writing about wedding cakes, Google could serve up more than 9,000 images for us to choose from, and we could even sort the fabulous photos of cakes by “over the top,” “buttercream,” and “purple.”
If Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post, two respected publications, can scan the internet for content they want to use, so can we, right? Not so fast, as it turns out.
Hormel Foods Corp., the 125-year-old pork processing giant, didn’t take kindly to our posting a picture of its most famous “canned meat product” to illustrate our essay about junky spam messages clogging up our inbox. A lawyer friend advised us that big corporations don’t have much of a sense of humor, so we deleted the photo.
And then there was the beautiful photo of crispy potato pancakes that we found online. In our blog, we gave a shout out in the caption to the talented chef who actually made them, but that wasn’t good enough. Two days later, we got an irate email from the chef who recognized her latkes and asked us to take the photo down. Oops.
We’ve wised up since then. We no longer “borrow” random online images of delicious desserts. We’ve learned that if we take the picture ourselves, we own it and there’s no question of copyright. That’s why you’ll find us snapping photos of the fruit tarts and takeout sushi in our local gourmet supermarket. Or baking it ourselves, to snap a photo.
So when we go to the copy center next week to make copies of this article, and the clerk doesn’t believe that we’re the authors, we’re going to do it anyway. We know the law. And if he turns us in and the judge sends us up the river, you’ll find us “stuck in Folsom prison and time keeps draggin’ on.”*
*Folsom Prison Blues©, written and sung by Johnny Cash, 1957 Sun Records.
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer 8/7/16