I’ve always noticed a bit of an interesting trend when it comes to people wielding copyright laws, and that is the general assumption that just because something is copyrighted by someone, that it automatically implies that people have no rights to copy them. That is not true. Sadly, though, you hear the phrase “it’s copyrighted” as an excuse not to copy something. Well, guess what, you’re going to be hard pressed to find something that *isn’t* copyrighted these days, especially since in the U.S. you don’t need to register them anymore with the government or even add a (c) to your work. Everything is just automatically protected by copyright law.
The fact of the matter is, people give away the rights to copy all the time (free software, anyone?) without giving up the copyright. So, to say something is “copyrighted” does not necessarily imply that the owner of the copyright will be offended if you make a copy. What you really need to do is find out their feeling on the matter.
I’m really going to simplify here and say that there are three general degrees of distributing copy rights: licensing, permission and unrestrictive.
Licensing would be what the big companies want to do. Sure you pay $18 for a small plastic disc, but you are licensing the content. You don’t own it, and that’s why you can’t make copies. You are generally agreeing to terms that say, “this is one copy, for you, and you alone.” Licensing can have lots of forms, and basically gets into contracts after that. Radio stations license the right to copy the music they play by rebroadcasting it. Just like a movie theater, they get master copies, and license the right to make copies themselves, while the producers get a cut of the income.
The second one is generally “please ask permission before using this.” You’ll see this a lot on things that aren’t necessarily hugely popular, but the owners don’t want people running naked in the streets with their works, either. Generally speaking, it seems like the owners are always going to approve of the use if they approve with the application (chilling, I know, but still reasonable for most applications).
The third is what free software licenses use — nobody has to ask for permission because it’s already granted ahead of time. I suppose there is a fourth method to copyright which is fair use, but that doesn’t really fall into the realm of sharing since in most cases you’re only sampling the work.
Don’t think for a second that just because large entertainment industries enforce their rights to copy on most everything they own, that their method is the status quo. The word copyright implies making copies. The question is, who has the rights?