Cat Flag’s Health Insurance Misadventure, Part 2

Stethascope image from The Health Care Blog

Now that 2014 is in full swing, millions of Americans are now adjusting to a new health care reality brought about by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known my most Americans as “Obamacare”. Since it was first proposed in Congress in 2009, I have never seen a law so polarizing and controversial in my life.

The law was intended to address a major problem in the United States. As the only developed and industrialized country with no universal government-backed guarantee of health coverage for all, those Americans who weren’t old enough to qualify for Medicare, had too high of an income to qualify for Medicaid, didn’t participate in an insurance program they got from their employer, and couldn’t pay for private health insurance out-of-pocket had to simply make do without. This meant that millions of Americans would be stuck paying doctors, pharmacists, and hospitals thousands of dollars for their medical treatments. This problem was even worse for patients who had some sort of pre-existing health condition, who could be turned down for insurance or forced to pay more to get insured.

The new law prohibits insurance companies from turning down or charging more to people with pre-existing health conditions, allows college students under the age of 26 to keep health coverage through their parents’ insurance plans, and sets up low-cost insurance exchanges subsidized by the government for individuals who are too poor to afford ordinary private insurance but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. In particular, these exchanges try to make insurance more affordable by having the government pay a part of each participant’s monthly insurance bill, based on their income. For this plan to work, millions of healthy people would have to sign up to the program, with their monthly payments helping to spread the cost of caring for those who actually need medical care. Otherwise, the program would just get too expensive. To make sure as many people signed up as possible, the law set up a penalty for anyone who didn’t get health insurance – they would have to pay $95 or 1% of their annual income (whichever is greater) each year they are not covered until 2016, or $695 or 2.5% of their income (whichever is greater) each year they are not covered thereafter.

Health care is such a complicated issue, with a million possible variables and nearly infinite unique situations, that the law itself had to be one of the most insanely long documents you have ever seen (you can read it here) just to cover any scenario or problem the lawmakers could think of. The law is so long and complicated, that entire websites devoted to explaining how the law works in plain English and debunking misconceptions about it have started to crop up.

The law has plenty of critics. I have heard plenty of ordinary people on the street discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of the law. Nothing has galvanized the Republican Party in recent years like Obamacare has, as Republicans have made “repeal and replace” their rallying cry for the past four years. Just yesterday, Senate Republicans formally proposed their own “Obamacare alternative” law.

Not only is the law itself controversial, but its implementation has been, as well. The original plan was for each state to either create a health insurance exchange of its own, or to partner with the federal government to do so. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, the states got a third option: do neither, and force the federal government to set up an insurance exchange to cover residents of those states. As of this writing, 27 states have chosen this third option. Thus, the federal government had to set up its own website for people to use to buy insurance from the exchange, and when the federal website was opened to the public, it was buggy and crashed a lot.

That problem was eventually fixed, but now the White House is bracing for even more complaints and problems as patients try to use their new insurance to pay for doctor visits and medicines. That’s not even beginning to mention those families who received letters from their existing health insurers that told them “We’re sorry, but the new laws make it way too expensive to insure you, so we’re dropping your coverage and cancelling your policy.” Here in my home state of California, there are 900,000 people who lost their health insurance in this way. Not only that, but the new exchanges have come nowhere close to covering all of the 45 million uninsured Americans, or even merely the 5.5 million uninsured Californians. Only 3 million people nationwide have signed up for insurance through these exchanges, and many of these are people who were already insured and were simply switching their coverage. Here in California, only 424,936 people enrolled in the program as of January 1.

Even those who actually are enrolling are not necessarily the kind of patient that the exchanges need. Only about a quarter of the program’s participants are under the age of 35. More than half are between the ages of 45 and 64. This is a real problem for the program, as younger patients tend to be healthier and need less medical care than older patients. If too few young patients sign up, the administration fears, those private insurance companies that participate in the exchanges may have to raise their rates.

Many of you probably read my last discussion on health care, where I described my own journey through the complexities of trying to get health insurance. As I explained in that article, I am young, healthy, and have no long-running health problems. I haven’t been in a doctor’s office in more than a year. I am exactly the kind of patient that Obamacare is looking for. Since I figured it couldn’t hurt to find out if I could save money by applying, I decided to give Obamacare a shot. Here’s what I found out.

Californians Get a Different “Obamacare” Experience than Other States

CoveredCalifornia logo from KQED

The first thing I did was… I waited. I had been reading headlines about how was constantly crashing and giving people problems, and decided I’d rather wait until the bugs were fixed. When the news reported that the bugs were mostly fixed and the website was working, I finally decided to check it out, only to discover that it didn’t matter.

The first thing that happens when you type “” in your web browser is a prompt asking if you want to apply for health coverage. Then, it asks you what state you live in. When you select “California”, it tells you that California is one of those states that chose to set up its own exchange, and redirects you to a different site.

Welcome to “Covered California”, a program set up by the state’s Department of Health Care Services to try to insure everyone in the most populous state in the nation. The website lets you compare the different health insurance options available with a surprisingly convenient and intuitive “shop and compare” tool. You just enter your income, how many people you are trying to cover and their respective ages, and where you live. Then, based on your income, it will tell you one of three things. If your income is at or below 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, it will tell you that you might qualify for Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid (more on that in a minute). If your income falls between 133% and 400% of the Federal Povery Level, it will tell you that you may get a subsidy to help you pay for one of the state’s approved insurance plans. If your income is more than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level, it will tell you that you don’t qualify for any subsidy and must pay the full price for you insurance.

Covered California is served by only two companies: Anthem Blue Cross (a subsidiary of the for-profit health insurance company WellPoint) and Blue Shield of California (a non-profit insurance provider). These insurance companies offer four tiers of coverage, based on how much you are willing to pay per month. The lowest or “Bronze” tier is the cheapest, but only pays about 60% of your medical expenses (doctor’s visits, hospital visits, medications, surgeries, and so on). You have to pay the rest. The next tier, “Silver”, is a bit pricier but covers 70% of your expenses. “Gold”, as you may expect, is pricier still but pays 80% of your expenses. The priciest tier is “Platinum”, which will foot 90% of your medical bills.

If you buy one of these insurance plans and you qualify for a government subsidy, then when you pay your monthly bill, the amount that Uncle Sam pays is automatically deducted from your premium. Then, when you go to file your taxes for the year, those subsidies are taken into account when calculating your tax refund or payment. You also have the option to “opt-out” of this automatic deduction and just pay the full premium every month, and get the entire year’s tax credit as one big refund at tax time. Be warned, though, that there are plenty of things that could change the amount of your subsidy: a raise, a marriage, a new baby, a lost job, and so on. You have to keep Covered California updated on these changes and adjust your subsidy accordingly, or else you may end up owing a significant sum at tax time.

The Application Process is Simpler

Signing form image from Florida A&M

When I applied for private health insurance in my last adventure, I had to go through what seemed like pages and pages of digital check-boxes and text-boxes to give the insurer as complete of a picture of my health as I could give. I had to check “no” to a barrage of questions about whether or not I had had various types of cancers or heart diseases, I had to tell them I had never been diagnosed with mental disorders and never undergone any surgeries, and I had to reassure them that I hadn’t been on any prescription drugs for the past six months. At least it was fairly easy for me to just check “no”, “no”, “no” over and over again. If I had to answer “yes” to anything, I imagine it would have made filling out the form much harder, because I would have had to explain the circumstances to them. This video by somebody much older than I am and with a more colorful medical history shows just what I mean.

That video also shows just how much easier applying for an Obamacare plan is. When I applied through Covered California, I had to create an account, answer a few questions about who I was trying to cover (just myself), and tell them about my income. I had to send them a digital copy of my ID card and tax return to prove I wasn’t lying, and then I was done. The website asked me how I would like to be contacted, and then told me that my application would be reviewed by an actual person for final approval. It was easier than applying for student financial aid for college.

To illustrate just how much easier to get insurance through Covered California was, let me tell you a little story. A few days after my last health insurance misadventure, after submitting my application for private insurance, I got a phone call asking about my weight. I had made an error on my application, and they thought I was medically underweight. I told the lady my mistake, and she corrected the application for me so I could get approved. When I applied for insurance through Covered California, they didn’t even ask me my weight. Or any medical questions at all.

Medi-Cal has Changed Since I Last Applied

Healthcare image from SocialInnovationMN

I had to wait for weeks to hear back after I submitted my application. I assumed the people who were reviewing these applications probably had a crush of work to do after the holiday break as Californians tried to get their applications in before the end of the year. When I did hear back, I got a letter telling me that, based on my income, I didn’t qualify for Obamacare, but did qualify for Medi-Cal. They would send my application over to Medi-Cal for approval.

About a week later, I received my Benefits Identification Card in the mail, a piece of plastic that I needed to use to access any Medi-Cal benefits when I go to a doctor, hospital, or pharmacist. The strange thing was that the card came with an explicit warning that just because I have a card doesn’t mean I actually have any benefits. Instead, the letter told me to keep the card whether I qualified or not; if I reapply and get benefits at a later time, it said, I could still use that card. I guess it saves the state money to not have to keep printing new cards?

In any case, I found out about a month after my application that I had been approved for Medi-Cal and was enrolled. This was a huge improvement over the last time I applied for Medi-Cal, when I had to wait for hours, drive around town, and find out that I didn’t qualify for anything. This time, I just had to fill out an online application and then sit around and wait for a month. And this time I got approved.

Now that I am on Medi-Cal, I decided to figure out what next steps I need to take, so I asked someone who was familiar with how the program works. I learned that Medi-Cal, on a functional level, works just like an HMO. I have to visit specific, approved doctors, and I have to have a “primary care physician” as my main doctor to approve any specialized care I may need. One advantage to Medi-Cal, though, is that there is a fall-back plan for patients without a primary care physician. The Community Health Centers are a network of non-profit urgent care clinics located throughout the California Central Coast that take Medi-Cal patients and are listed as an approved primary care provider. I was warned, though, that it is best to go to whatever doctor or CHC clinic I choose right away, and fill out the forms I need to get registered as a patient. Otherwise, it could take months for me to get an appointment if I am sick.

I hope that my writing all of this down will be helpful to someone who may feel lost and confused with all the new health insurance changes. I sure could have used some of this information while I was applying for coverage. If you haven’t applied for Obamacare yet, but are considering doing so, you had better apply soon. Covered California is only taking applications until February 15 for plans that start in March, and only until March 15 for plans that start in April. For the rest of the country, open enrollment in Obamacare ends March 31.

Even More Things Your History Class Got Wrong

Caveman Computer image from Cormack Consultancy

Today’s history teachers must have a difficult job. They have to lecture to disinterested and bored students about a subject they, for the most part, really don’t care about. They can’t liven things up with some videos from the History Channel anymore, because the History Channel is now just one of far too many 24/7 Reality TV marathons. On top of these problems, the Internet has made it far, far easier for people to look up history facts for themselves, and discover just how wrong some of the things our history teachers told us really are.

Yes, it’s time once again to un-learn some of the most common “facts” you were taught in school and find out the truth.

Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean

Charles Lindbergh image from the Library of Congress

The Truth: Two British men crossed the Atlantic eight years before Lindbergh did.

NY Times image from Aviation History

Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown flew from Newfoundland to Ireland on June 14-15, 1919. They were both test pilots for the airplane maker Vickers, Ltd. The company had modified a special Vickers Vimy plane with extra fuel tanks for the flight, and the pair were entrusted with a bundle of about 200 letters to be delivered in Ireland. They were competing for a prize offered by the Daily Mail newspaper: £10,000 for the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop in a single plane. They braved hours in the air, knowing that their plane could easily wind up in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue. They flew through thick, freezing fog, even as night fell and the exhaust pipe from one of their engines broke and burst into flames. When they finally did reach Ireland, they attempted to land in what looked like a green field, but turned out to be a thick bog.



Miraculously, neither pilot was hurt, and they lived to be national heroes rewarded with knighthoods and monuments built to their achievements. And then Charles Lindbergh stole the spotlight, and everyone forgot about them.

So what’s with our history books?

The Alcock-Brown flight inspired the creation of a new prize. The Orteig Prize would give $25,000 to the first person to fly from New York City to Paris. This was the prize Lindbergh won in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, and the reason he made so many headlines.

To be fair, Lindbergh’s achievement was a bit more impressive. For one thing, he flew alone, not with a co-pilot. Secondly, the distance Lindbergh covered was far, far longer – more than 1,600 miles longer!

The biggest reason we remember him and not the British pilots, though, has to do with the mass media. Alcock and Brown faded into obscurity after their moment of fame. Lindbergh not only grabbed the spotlight, he stayed there. He became a big-name celebrity, writing an autobiography, touring the world, helping to fund scientific research, and campaigning to keep America out of World War II. Furthermore, his baby son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, an ordeal that became known as the “Crime of the Century” in the press and paved the way for future celebrity-crime media circuses.

Thus, we end up forgetting all about those two obscure British aviators who actually made the first Atlantic crossing, in favor of the man who became a household name worldwide.

Before Columbus, people thought the Earth was flat

Flat Earth image from Big Education Ape

The Truth: Human beings have known the world is round for thousands of years.

I live in a coastal town. When I look out over the ocean, sometimes a sailboat will disappear over the horizon. Did it fall off the edge of the Earth? Of course not, as evidenced by the fact the boat will eventually return to port and its crew will NOT say “You wouldn’t believe what happened to us! We fell off the edge of the Earth! It was unbelievably hard for us to climb back up with our boat in tow!”

Yeah, no. It is pretty easy to deduce that the Earth is round, with some simple geometry. All you need is the Sun, which is why both the shape and size of the Earth were calculated by the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes in 240 BC. Eratosthenes was living in Egypt, and learned that in the Egyptian city of Swenet on the summer solstice, the sun is directly overhead at noon. At this particular time and place, a pole would cast no shadow. Eratosthenes didn’t live in Swenet, however; he lived in Alexandria. So, one summer solstice day at noon, he decided to see if a pole in his hometown would cast a shadow. It did, and he measured the angle of the shadow.

Now, using these two measurements (a zero-degree shadow in Swenet and a 7.2-degree shadow in Alexandria) and the distance between the cities where these measurements were taken, he made some geometric calculations and not only figured out that the Earth must be a sphere, he calculated how big the Earth must be.

THIS is what Columbus was challenging, and why everyone thought he was crazy. Nobody argued that the world wasn’t round, but Columbus believed that Eratosthenes had made a grave miscalculation. According to Columbus, the Earth was actually far smaller than the ancient Greeks thought. In fact, he argued, the Earth was small enough that a westward voyage to Asia was economically feasible. Centuries later, of course, NASA has taken precise measurements of exactly how big the Earth is. Obviously Columbus’s estimates were wrong, but the fascinating thing is that Eratosthenes’s measurements were actually very close to the true answer. In fact, that ancient Greek calculation was off by less than 2%!

So what’s with our history books?

You can’t spell history without “story”, and people like to interpret history as a story. We like clear-cut heroes and villains, and we like to see patterns that make all the events we learn about make sense. We don’t like thinking of history as a jumble of isolated events and accidents, because we crave a deeper meaning.

The most common of these narratives is a “Tale of Progress”. We like to imagine our ancestors as primitive and superstitious. We interpret our history as an inexorable march of science and culture toward the peak of technological superiority and rationality that we are. We tell ourselves that we are the product of generations of constant improvement, the apex of what humanity can achieve.

Er... maybe not.

Er… maybe not.

People are people, and whether we like to admit it or not, our ancestors were just as smart as we are. They simply didn’t have the technology or access to education that we do now.

The Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War was a military disaster for the U.S.

Tet Offensive image from the National Archives and Records Administration

The Truth: The Tet Offensive was a military disaster, but for the other side.

The United States was never officially “at war” during the Vietnam War, we were simply “helping” the anti-Communist South Vietnamese government fight pro-Communist Viet Cong rebels. Our “help” was controversial from the beginning, and there were plenty of accusations that some soldiers in the U.S. military were attacking and killing unarmed civilians. (To be fair, though, so were the Viet Cong.)

Yet the plain fact on the ground was that America and our South Vietnamese allies were winning, in the sense that we were destroying the Viet Cong’s effectiveness as a fighting force. The Tet Offensive was a last-gasp measure by an overstretched, under-supplied, dying force that was on its last legs. And it was a disaster for them.

The Viet Cong, whose base of support came mainly from rural areas, hoped and expected that city-dwellers would join their uprising to give them a breath of new life, but that didn’t happen. Instead, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces crushed the rebels so completely, that after the battle ended the Viet Cong basically disappeared as a fighting force. It was a major victory for the Americans. From this point on, the Vietnam War wasn’t a war against a rebellion in South Vietnam; it was a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam, with northern troops making up the majority of the Communist forces.

So what’s with our history books?

The Tet Offensive may have been the final, dramatic collapse of the Viet Cong, but it sure didn’t look like a collapse on TV. Up until this point, most of what American audiences watching the nightly news saw of the Vietnam War was repeated reassurances by military commanders that we were winning and the Viet Cong were collapsing. Then, without warning, the Viet Cong managed to simultaneously strike dozens of cities all across South Vietnam. News cameras rolled as bombs and gunfire shattered once-peaceful cities.

It didn’t matter that in most cases, the rebels were pushed back within a matter of hours, or that American and South Vietnamese casualties were far lower than those of the rebellion. What mattered was that it looked to news reporters like Walter Cronkite that the Viet Cong were an unstoppable force of destruction, and it appeared as if the military had been misleading the American public. This was one case where perception was far more important than reality, and the perception that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won took hold of the American public’s imagination.

Antiwar protest image from Jewish Currents

I once saw a T-shirt in a store that specialized in military nostalgia. It showed a map of Vietnam and read “We were winning when I left.” That really sums up the end of the Vietnam War in a nutshell – the United States, right or wrong, decided to give up the fight. Without our help, South Vietnam couldn’t keep fighting. It collapsed and the country was reunited under Communist rule.

This just goes to show that often the media and popular perception of events is what ends up in the history books, not the actual events themselves. Sometimes, it just pays to be a little skeptical and dig up your own answers.

Cat Flag’s Guide to Legal Copyright Exceptions: Fair Use, Public Domain, and Creative Commons

The world-famous Copyright logo, image from the Wikimedia Commons

Copyright issues are in the news again, this time because of the biggest go-to site for internet videos: YouTube. Last month, YouTube rolled out a new feature that is meant to protect the copyrights of content creators. Called the “Content ID” system, it is a computer program that analyzes videos uploaded to the site, looking for videos, images, or music that have been pirated. In this way, they hope to tackle those who steal other people’s creative works without the complicated and expensive process of copyright lawsuits. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

Well, it turns out the program is a bit overzealous. Or, rather, a LOT overzealous. People with explicit permission to use clips or content have had their videos flagged. The worst-hit are video game reviewers and makers of hugely-popular “Let’s Play” videos, who have some of the largest audiences on the site. But plenty of other YouTubers have been hit by copyright claims, for doing so much as singing a few lines of a song in their video. Making matters worse, some of the claims are not made by the actual copyright owners… there have been reports of fraudulent copyright claims by people abusing the system, as well as claims made by the computer program with no human input whatsoever. In one extreme case, the creator of a video game had a copyright claim against a video he made demonstrating his own game. While this is an ongoing story that will probably see new developments in the future, it is a reminder of just how important, and how complex, copyright has become in the digital age.

Luckily, my YouTube videos have not yet been affected by the new Content ID system (*knocks wood*). But since this is an issue that is being talked about right now, I feel it is an appropriate time to talk about copyright more generally, and talk about the many things I have learned over the years about when it is acceptable and unacceptable to use parts of someone else’s work as a part of your own.

Why do we have copyright, anyway?

IP Venn Diagram image from BusinessSarah

The idea of something being “intellectual property” is a very recent phenomenon. Copyright only became a thing that exists in 1710, when the British Parliament adopted the Statute of Anne. Here in the United States, the Constitution explicitly gives the federal government the power to write laws protecting intellectual property, and so the principle of copyrighting media was introduced via the Copyright Act of 1790.

Why did governments around the world start to do this? Before things like copyrights, patents, and trademarks existed, if somebody came up with an idea for a book, invention, artwork, or business name, somebody else could simply come in, copy their work, and make money off of it. The original person with the idea would have all of the expenses of writing that book or building that machine, but the copycat would not. This would give the copycat an unfair advantage, as he could start turning a profit much sooner. This discouraged people from coming up with new ideas, as they feared getting taken advantage of and losing all of their hard work.

Copyrights, patents, and trademarks aimed to fix this problem by giving people a period of exclusivity over their idea. If a writer’s book is copyrighted, and someone publishes that book without the author’s consent, he or she can sue that publisher and collect damages. In this way, people gained a financial incentive to create things, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have seen a flood of new inventions and works of art since these laws were first passed.

Originally, copyright in the United States only lasted 14 years, with the possibility of renewal for another 14 years. After that, the work in question entered what is known as the “public domain”, and anyone could copy or use it. Over the years, however, copyright has been extended over and over again, as creators wanted more and more control over the things they had made. Currently, U.S. law states that if you were to, say, make a video, you would own the copyright to that video for the rest of your life, plus an additional 70 years (meaning in practice that your family would own it after you die). Meanwhile, if a big corporation like The Walt Disney Company makes a movie, then the company owns the copyright for that movie for between 95 and 120 years, depending on when the movie is released.

I chose Disney as my corporate example for a good reason, by the way. The law extending copyright to its current limits, the Copyright Extension Act of 1998, was passed in large part due to Disney’s lobbying in Congress, earning the law the nickname “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by the law’s critics.

When people talk about so-called “pirated” songs, movies, TV shows, video games, and so on, they are really talking about violating someone’s copyright by distributing copies of the work in question without permission. Technology these days makes pirating extremely easy, which is why enforcement has been so important in recent years. If you don’t want to get in trouble with the law, buy your music, video games, and movies legally, and get permission before you try to make your own material using someone else’s work. Unless, of course, what you are doing is protected by fair use.

Fair Use: The Exception to the Copyright Rule

Cat Flag loves Fair Use!

Cat Flag loves Fair Use!

Ever since copyright was created, courts have consistently ruled that it is NOT a blanket ban on any use of copyrighted material. The “Fair Use Doctrine” has long been a staple of copyright law, and is codified in the laws of the United States.

Now, each country’s copyright laws are different, but here in the United States there are four factors courts use to decide if something counts as a “fair use” or not. I’m quoting the law directly here:

  1. “The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

Decades of court decisions have made it clear that a critical review or commentary on an artwork, book, song, film, video game, and so forth would (in most cases) be an acceptable fair use of copyrighted material. After all, if somebody could use their copyright to deny permission to critics that give them bad reviews, it would hurt consumers. Parodies have also long been considered fair use, because they are also a form of criticism.

Meanwhile, Cat Flag is a nonprofit blog – I do not make a single penny off of this website. I know some of you see ads in the bottom of your screen sometimes, but those are put there by WordPress, the service I use to make this blog, in order to pay for their servers. I make Cat Flag because I enjoy it, and I hope you all find it a useful educational resource. Sometimes I use images in my blog that I have downloaded off of the Internet in order to illustrate my points. I always credit the source of the image – click on any image on any of my blogs, and you will see the source in the web address. I feel that this meets the fair use criteria, and so far I have never had any legal problems. (*knocks wood again*)

Let’s say you don’t even want to risk an argument over fair use, though. There are still plenty of options available to you to draw from in creating your own work, thanks to the public domain.

Public Domain: Free for Everyone, Forever

Nixon meets Mao image from the National Archives

That image you see with former President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao is in the public domain. That means there is no copyright on it. Go ahead, download it. Share it with all your friends. Put it in your own blog or video or collage. It’s all perfectly legal.

I depended on public domain images and video clips for my most recent documentary, AUDREY: Our Matriarch. I didn’t want the video to be just 32 minutes of someone sitting and talking, and I also wanted to illustrate some of the things my grandmother was saying with some contextual footage.

Public domain just means that anyone can use whatever-it-is however they like. It’s a resource available for free, for everyone, forever. How does something wind up in the public domain, though? Well, there are four main ways that this happens.

First of all, anything the United States federal government makes is automatically in the public domain. If a U.S. federal government employee took a picture or made a video as a part of his or her official duties, that picture or video is available to the public to use.

Like this image of President Obama's inauguration, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza

Like this image of President Obama’s inauguration, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza

The most common way something winds up in the public domain is simply that its copyright has expired. This will vary from country to country, but here in the United States, pretty much anything made before 1923 is in the public domain. This means fairy tales, ancient mythology, a huge body of classic literature and art, very old photographs, and the sheet music and lyrics for songs written before that year are all available.

This photo was taken in 1862. No copyright to be found here.

This photo was taken in 1862. No copyright to be found here.

Not everything in the public domain is necessarily that old, though. Copyright laws have changed many times over the years, and sometimes works sort of “fall into” the public domain because of a loophole. For example, U.S. copyright law today gives you copyright automatically for any idea you have as soon as you have it, so nobody can steal your unfinished draft novel and publish it as their own. Prior to 1979, however, the law was different. Back then, you actually had to register your copyright, or at least include some sort of copyright notice, hence the little (c) mark.

Sometimes, people would goof and not copyright their work correctly, or they would copyright something but decide not to renew their copyright when the time was up. Sometimes, a company that created movies, cartoons, or comic books would go out of business, and nobody would buy the rights to their creations. In all of those cases, the work would land in the public domain. You’d be surprised by what qualifies as public domain due to these loopholes.

Then again, these loopholes also created some very strange situations:

  • The movie It’s A Wonderful Life is in the public domain, but its script and soundtrack, as well as the original story it was based on, are all still copyrighted. In effect, this means you could use images from the film but not the audio.
  • The Superman cartoons from the 1940s are in the public domain, but the characters of Superman/Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and so on are still owned by Warner Bros. This means that you can’t make your own Superman-themed merchandise or movies on the excuse of basing them on the cartoons.
  • In one particularly strange case, several promotional stills that were distributed to newspapers to drum up excitement for the 1960s Adam West Batman TV show were never copyrighted (The show itself is copyrighted, of course).
Not pictured: Copyright.

Not pictured: Copyright.

The fourth and final way things end up in the public domain is if the creator of the work in question voluntarily releases it into the public domain and gives up all copyright to his or her work. It is excruciatingly rare for someone to do that, but it does happen. Last year, a group of six artists, musicians, and video game makers created a collection of art, music, and source codes that they dubbed “The Open Bundle”. They held a fundraiser with the promise that if they met their goals, they would release the Bundle into the public domain. Well, they met their goals, and now you can download and use the materials in their bundle here.

A quick word of caution, though: while you can freely share and use anything in the public domain, other people’s works based on that public domain work are still subject to copyright. For example, Thor is in the public domain because he is a character in ancient Norse mythology. But this Thor…

Thor The Dark World image from Fansided

…is copyrighted by Marvel, because he is a character in their movies.

But what if you want people to be able to share your work without giving up all of your copyright rights? It turns out, there is an app for that, too.

Creative Commons: Deciding Who Can Use Your Work and How

Creative Commons symbols from Techntuit

The idea behind Creative Commons is simple. Instead of making a copyright holder have to specifically authorize each and every use of his or her work, he or she can choose to issue a blanket license that covers most typical situations where someone might want to use or share his or her work. Creative Commons was founded in 2001 with this idea in mind.

Creative Commons licences have proliferated all over the Internet. Google, Flickr, Wikipedia, and even Al-Jazeera make frequent use of Creative Commons. As of this writing, there are six different Creative Commons licenses to choose from, each of which works like a legal contract on whoever you share your work with. Each license offers different levels of restriction based on how you want your work to be used.

I actually make use of Creative Commons licenses myself. Some of the videos on my YouTube page have a Creative Commons Attribution licence, the most permissive of the options available, which means that you can reuse, remix, or take clips from these videos as long as you give me credit as the video’s creator. I don’t do this for all of my videos, mind you, just the ones that I want to share with the world in this way.

Creative Commons is useful for people who want to incorporate images or music or video clips into their work, but the public domain resources they have available to them won’t cut it and they don’t want the hassle of getting permissions or worrying about fair use. As long as you are careful to meet the requirements of the license, you can use Creative Commons material.

Here are some useful resources I have found for Public Domain or Creative Commons materials

Prelinger Archives – I love this website. It has hundreds of Public Domain videos available for download in multiple formats, making it easy to find the right clip for your needs. – Need free or cheap stock photos? This website has a huge library to choose from. Many of the pictures were released into the public domain by the creator, while the rights to others can be bought for a royalty of just $1.

The CIA World Factbook – Need an image of a particular country? The CIA World Factbook is an almanac of sorts providing key facts about the various countries of the world, like their size, population, economic indicators, and so on. Each article on a country also has photos donated from U.S. government agencies and private citizens, all of which are in the public domain. – NASA is a U.S. government agency, and so its library of space photos and audio clips is all in the public domain. Photo and Image Links – A quick resource that links to the photo galleries of various government agencies, most of which are in the public domain.

Incompetech – Meet Kevin MacLeod, creator of a huge gallery of music that all are under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so you can use his music as long as you credit him as the creator. I used his music in my first documentary, Homeless In Paradise.

Wikimedia Commons – A huge online archive of images and other media, all of which are accompanied by a convenient explanation of the media’s copyright status: public domain, Creative Commons, or copyrighted. It makes searching for a particular image incredibly convenient.

I hope all of you had a Happy New Year! Here’s to 2014!