Copyright for Pagans: Examples

There are a number of common confusions about copyright and Pagan uses. Here’s a quick overview. (Want more details about one? Contact me or leave a comment!)

Copyright for Pagans: Common Pagan Situations

Common confusions : libraries and used book stores

Some people wonder why libraries and used books are okay under copyright, when sharing copies of ebooks or other electronic files isn’t.

The short answer is that there’s something called the “first sale doctrine” that covers physical objects, but not digital ones.

One of the reasons for the distinction is that first sale grants some rights to redistribute a copyrighted work, but not to reproduce it (and in our current technology, a copy of a digital file involves a reproduction, even if you later delete the original from your computer.) Libraries and used book stores are working with the same object (either lending it, or selling it) and there is no residual copy left while the material is being loaned or once it leaves the original owner’s hands.

Some parts of the first sale doctrine have gotten attention at the Supreme Court in recent years relating to geographical limits for first sales. These might be of interest if you’re curious about some of the ways copyright can affect trade

(Other confusions about ebook and digital production costs, and about whether making illegal copies hurts people are better left for other posts. They have their own complexities.)

Complicated world : transformative works

Another way things get complicated is the idea of transformative works. This has been a growing area for discussion.

Transformative works take a copyrighted work and adapt it. Parodies are one example, and they’ve been a specific discussion in copyright law and copyright cases for a long time. These days, we also have things like fanfiction and fanvids, memes, mashups, and related concepts to play with.

If you’ve been around the speculative fiction or fannish community for a while, you’ve probably seen lots of examples of this in one form or another: it’s a way of playing with ideas or concepts, without having to create everything from scratch – or of using widely known material to explore new ideas

In a Pagan setting

Different kinds of actions have different implications when it comes to copyright. It’s hard to tell for certain unless we’re looking at specific cases, but here are some common actions in the Pagan community that are probably violations, some that depend a lot on the specifics, and some that are permitted uses.

Quite possibly a violation

Republishing of work without permission without any additional commentary/material. (Permission might include a Creative Commons license.) This would include sharing an entire copy of a work online.

Quoting large portions of a work, even for purposes like review. This would include the core of the work, extensive portions of the work, etc. Generally a few sentences here or there from a work of non-fiction is considered acceptable, especially if it is clearly not the core of the work.

Posting an image to your social media site if you do not know the original source/creator and have permission (either directly or via something like a Creative Commons license.) Some artists are fine if credit is given, others don’t want their work shared like this at all.

Gray areas: depends on the specifics:

Pieces used in ritual (especially public ones) such as chants, invocations, ritual dramas, full rituals from print sources.

These might be covered by implied license – the idea that people shared them in the first place because they wanted them to be shared in the larger community. In these cases, it’s still best to know where they came from, and share the creator’s name/etc.

Spells
Recipes are a complicated situation in copyright law – a list of facts, steps, etc. is generally not copyrightable, but something like a poetry verse in a spell generally falls under copyright.

Spells usually have some components like recipes, and some components (chants, text, descriptive language about what to do or what to focus on while doing the spell) that would be covered by copyright.

Sharing materials in a closed setting like a coven or small group meeting, taking steps to make sure sure they are not shared in openly available sources online.

This falls under some of the educational provisions, which get complicated. In general, if you want to share things year after year, you want to get permission.

Permitted uses:

Putting material in a Book of Shadows (or other personal religious compilation) that is not shared with others (whether in person, through print copies, or online). Including your sources is always a good idea.

Sending yourself an article in email from an online database or website, for your own reference and study. (A copy for yourself is fine. Sharing that copy could be a problem. It’d depend on the source.)

Passing down material through oral tradition. One person talking to another is not a fixed or tangible form.

Casual discussion, review, or comment on works without extended quotations.
“I liked this book because of these things” is just fine. So is “I didn’t like this book.” It’s the quotations that are the copyright issue. Brief quotations in the places where the specific wording matters are generally fine, but extended quotations where you could have summarised or paraphrased can be a problem.

Citing the source for an idea, even if the expression of the idea is new.

For example: you like someone’s approach to the myth of Persephone, but rewrite it entirely in your own words, it is great to rework it, but give credit for the idea. Storytellers and comedians have community customs about how you do this and when it’s important

Linking to a source or document online. Linking does not affect the original, and is not a copyright issue. Note, however, that some sources for Pagan materials online are themselves copyright violations. If you care about this issue, checking out the sources you’re linking to is a great habit to get into.

Using public domain images (i.e. from historical grimoires) to illustrate grimoires, journals, etc. Public domain images are no longer under copyright or never were, and they’re fine to use like this. In general, anything created before 1923 is quite possibly public domain: there are exceptions, but they’re pretty rare.

Some other examples

Ritual planning. 

“Beltane celebrates the coming summer and the love of the God and Goddess” is a general idea.

A discussion of planning a ritual with that idea isn’t under copyright (because it’s not a fixed form). But the actual ritual script, a video of the ritual, or an audio recording of the discussion would all be under copyright law, because they’d be a fixed form.

Creating spiritual images

An artist makes a picture, using a combination of a photograph they took and adding some effects in an image editor. They post it to their social media site. Even though it doesn’t say Copyright Artist Name 2013, it’s still a copyrighted image.

Sharing a ritual text

A Pagan group comes up with a ritual to celebrate the winter solstice. They share it on their website. While they’ve given permission for it to be used by members of the group, they do not give permission for others to copy it to their own sites (distribution or display), only to use it for their own rituals privately.

Photographs of stars and galaxies

Some things are automatically in the public domain. In the US, this includes things created by government or government agencies. For example, all the Astronomy Photos of the Day from NASA (but not necessarily other sources in the APOD site) are public domain because NASA is a government agency.

Coming next

Part 6 of this series will talk more about some common Pagan situations, including some best practices for avoiding copyright issues.

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