Copyright Law and Copying by Hand

I’ve been asked a number of times in the last couple of months if it’s OK to copy someone else’s work if you do it by hand rather than using a computer i.e. in terms of potential copyright liability.

Once or twice I’ve had to stop and think about it because copying has become so synonymous with the idea of our digital “cut and paste” culture. But of course for the purpose of copyright law a copy is a copy is a copy regardless of whether it’s written out or drawn by hand or cut and pasted via computer. Remember, we had copyright law a long time before we had computers. It was actually the invention of the printing press centuries ago that gave rise to the beginnings of copyright law. It’s never been the case that a copyright infringement requires the involvement of a computer.

It’s just that in the last decade or two “copying” has become synonymous with “cutting and pasting”.

So here’s a quick reminder that, for the purposes of copyright law, if you copy someone else’s copyrighted work (text, images, graphs, charts, maps, etc.) by hand, you may have engaged in copyright infringement. The question isn’t how you copied the work, but rather whether you have any excuse or defense to a copyright claim. There are lots of circumstances where you won’t get into trouble for copyright infringement, including:

  • Your copy is a fair use.
  • The copyright holder is fine with you making the copy—through, say, a license arrangement or other permission.
  • The copyright holder doesn’t notice the infringement or, if they do notice, they don’t complain about it.

I’ve written about fair use and licensing elsewhere and you might want to check out those other blog posts or other authorities on fair use and copyright licensing to be clear on when you can rely on these defenses.

However, the third situation can be much stickier. If you’re not making a fair use and you don’t have a license or other permission, then trying to avoid infringement by hoping that the copyright holder doesn’t notice can open you up to significant liability. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

And bear in mind that if the work you’ve copied is in the public domain, there is no copyright so there’s no potential infringement problem.