Have you made a tiktok video recently? Did you by chance use a song in the background that was trending in an attempt to get more views to grow your account’s following? If you did, chances are you technically committed copyright infringement and can potentially get sued by the original creator of the work that you used. This is because you put out “work” under your name but also used someone’s work inside your own without their express permission. This is why copyright laws were established in the first place, to protect the work of creators from people who may try to use it and get unearned credit or earn money for it. Copyright law has been around since the early printing press days of the sixteenth century. Since then, it has transformed into a set of statutes and laws that gives defensive and offensive options to creators on how they can protect their work. However, it is evident that the way people are choosing to practice these rights has been transforming over the past years with the new wave of social and digital entertainment.1
Let’s think about how someone might have approached using copyright law before the modern entertainment era we are experiencing today. Imagine you were a popular author whose full-time occupation was writing novels. When you finish your newest installment of the series, you would have it sent to bookstores for people to buy, usually through a publishing company that works with a distributor. A couple of days after your new book hits shelves, you are listening to the local public radio station and hear someone reading your new book to anyone who is listening to the station at that time. Then they talk about what they read after. If looking at this from a technical perspective, this person on the radio is putting out their own radio show and spending a large amount of their show reading your newest book without permission from you or the publishing company. They are increasing their listener base, in part from using your work without your permission, and only giving you a mention. If you value your hard work at all, you would then proceed to call your attorney to discuss how you can take legal action against the radio station, on-air talent, producing staff or sue them for copyright infringement since they are using your original work, which is protected under copyright law without prior permission. The situation I just described is actually a very similar one that I was told about during an interview with St. Mary’s Law School Professor Roberto Rondero De Mosier. When talking with Professor Mosier, he stated that the unnamed author had complete availability at the time of making a “full time job just for suing others for copyright infringement.”.2 This is how it worked during these times because he didn’t know what kind of or how many people were listening to this show, so he just wanted to protect his work and possibly collect damages if he and his legal representatives could prove them.
Now, let’s take a look at a similar scenario but it takes place here in the modern entertainment climate. You are a rising singer who just released your new album. When you wake up the next day, you decide to watch some videos on the entertainment platform ‘TikTok’. You go to the explore page and see that a snippet from one of the songs from your new album is a top trending sound on the app, thousands of people are using it in the background of their own videos and uploading them to the platform, including some of the largest social influencers on the popular platform. If we were in the same context as the last example, you would immediately call your lawyer to see how fast you can get Tiktok to take every one of those videos down for copyright infringement, as they are using your work without your permission. Nowadays, it seems that the approach to these types of issues has shifted and you won’t be as fast to take legal action as you might have previously. Given that there are many entertainment platforms today and no longer just movies, books, and radio, there is a much larger picture of how media affects you and your creations. If you go onto Tiktok right now and look at the top trending audio being used on the platform by creators, the majority will be songs. You might be wondering why some of these TikTok creations haven’t been taken down for copyright reasons. It has become apparent that many original artists in today’s entertainment space don’t decide to take action in a case like this because they take a step back and see a much bigger picture. For many artists it’s more than just trying to get money from people who used their created content inside of their own. This bigger picture seems to be that there is an almost “unlimited” opportunity for growth if you decide to let your work spread as fast and wide as possible and accept the fact that plenty of the people spreading your work will definitely not have permission to do so. On a similar note, another reason that creators may not be so fast to take legal action when it comes to copyright is that it can possibly make things worse for you instead of better. Taking legal action of any kind is always a risk, especially as a creator of any kind that may not have a lot of financial resources yet, because there is a risk of possibly losing the case and you will still have to pay all the fees that come with legal action including court and lawyer fees which can add up quickly.
So it seems that even though some laws don’t change over periods of time, the way we decide to use them definitely does. As a young professional photographer myself, I’m directly affected by the current copyright trends. To get a local personal perspective, I consulted with Darren Maslach, who has been a professional photographer for over 19 years. He has dealt with many clients during that time and found himself in similar situations involving copyright with his own work. He has taken an approach that matches more with the modern mindset, even from the beginning of his career. He believes in charging for the job that he does and then giving the product to his clients with no intention of having any control over how they choose to use it after that point. To back up his reasoning, he says “I’ll give my clients the picture and the next thing you know, they are all over their social media, their business cards, and they end up everywhere.”.3 He recognizes this new approach. He understands that he is choosing to give up some control of his work, and uses it to his advantage. He knows as a photographer, that if his images are good, then someone who knows that client will see them and ask who shot them. This has generated a steady stream of consistent business, even with economic challenges.
The current research suggests that it may be a while before many of these entertainment platforms decide to get better at catching and punishing users who violate copyright. If an entertainment platform does decide to get strict with its copyright enforcement, it may result in a large decrease in activity from users as they will have to be much more careful with what they use to make their content. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where your creative work is out there, will you be willing to sacrifice possible unlimited unlicensed use of your work for possibly unlimited amounts of new attention? That is a puzzling question for all creatives today.
Saunders, Kurt M. 2021. “Copyright Law.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, September. https://discovery-ebsco-com.blume.stmarytx.edu/linkprocessor/plink?id=1e40ef80-37ba-339b-9d40-4fc2240c129f. ↵
Dillard, Erik, and Robert Rondero De Mosier. Copyright In The Modern Entertainment Age Article Interview. Personal, September 5, 2022. ↵
Dillard, Erik, and Darren Maslach. Copyright In The Modern Entertainment Age Article Interview. Personal, September 9, 2022. ↵