Misconceptions of Fair Use. What do you mean I can’t print my invitations at OfficeMax?


So, you have found the perfect invitation for your child’s birthday party online. The colors match the party’s theme, and they even reference your child’s favorite fictional character. Better yet, you can get them personalized for a few dollars more. This is too perfect to pass up, and you purchase them and find out you have purchased the digital file. Or you purchased the digital file so you could personalize them further.


Everything seems to be going great, until you go to your local print/office store to print out the invitations. The store associate is refusing to print your invitations, they are claiming that copyright restricts them from printing your invitations. But you had paid for these invitations, don’t you own them? Even if this is not the case can’t you do whatever you want with them, so long as you aren’t selling them?


Well, like with most things in life and law, it depends. Copyright law on its face can be simple. A person has an idea, they manifest it in the physical world, and now it is copyrighted for their life plus 70yrs. However, there are nuances within the law that remove its simplicity. Due to the nature of your project you could be denied copyright protections, and you can even limit the rights and protections that comply to your intellectual property yourself.


With the increase in technology and the increased availability of digital media Copyright law has had to adapt a bit to make sure people can protect their intellectual property. To make sure the copyright owner’s rights are protected the law has developed a few differences in how it views digital and physical media. Often when it comes purchasing digital content, you have just purchased the right to use the content in a digital format. Digital media makes it easier for the Copyright owner to state they are selling a license to use the digital media and can restrict the use of their intellectual property in more ways than they could if it was physically on the self.


Even when you purchase a physical book or painting, you generally can’t make exact copies of these works. You own the physical book but you did not purchase the copyright to the work itself. But you can transform them physically. You can cut the spin of a book and either three-hole punch or spiral bind it, to make it easier to read. You can even laminate the poster you got from a concert to preserve it. With digital media, often you are required to keep it in its digital format. Unless it is clearly stated otherwise or you have received a release to print, you cannot transform the digital media into a physical format. Sometimes you cannot even transform the digital format into another type of digital format.  So, while you have purchased a digital version of the invitation, you do not exclusively own it. Unless stated otherwise, the copyright owner still has rights and protections in how they can be used. Often this means that they must stay in their digital format.


Another major nuance is the concept of Fair Use. Fair Use allows for the restricted use of copyrighted material. This concept allows Weird Al to make his famous parodies of popular music. It specifically allows for teachers to make copies of short stories or poems or sections of books and articles for their class. Fair Use is a great aspect of copyright law but it is not as all-encompassing as most people think it is.


An example of this limitation occurs when a third party is involved. For example, while you are not selling these invitations, the company printing is most likely being paid. This payment is what takes this project out of fair use. Someone other than the copyright owner is receiving money for the copyrighted property without the owner’s consent. A copyright owner can consent to someone else printing or using their protected content, however they need to either state this in their disclaimer of their copyright or send the purchaser a print release. Without the copyright owner’s consent, a third party will be unwilling to print your copyrighted invitations. Especially since the copyright owner could go after the third-party company for the infringement on the copyright owner’s rights to reproduction.


So, the next time you purchase an invitation online make sure to look at the fine print. If you don’t see anything that mentions copyright, don’t assume copyright does not apply. Ask for the seller if they will allow you or a third party to print these digital invitations. It may add some time to the purchasing processes but it will mean less of a headache when you try to print them.





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