There's a great, in-depth explanation of the issues of copyright, free speach, and public domain HERE at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It's a topic I'm very interested in.
Why do I care?
Well... It started out as a matter of self-protection. I make collages and I wanted to be sure that I didn't create copyright problems for myself. Sure I wanted to preserve the rights of the other artists who created any images I wanted to "borrow" in my work, I didn't want to steal or abuse... but largely I wanted to be sure I didn't get in trouble. Brave huh?
Secondarily, as a creator of content myself, I wanted to understand my rights. I have had a design or two stolen.
So I started studying copyright.
Frankly, the law - U.S. and international - is a mess and too much under the control of ignorant legislators being led around on leashes by Big Media and Big Pharma... by the big-money interested in highly restrictive and overly-long-term rules. At the same moment, we the public are recipients of a wonderful bonanza of public domain sharing due to the now-ripening of Victorian creativity into our joint ownership (which is what public domain means) and the unprecedented ease and freedom to share that is the internet.
Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland - and that story too - are now in the Public Domain. So it's fair game for me to adopt Alice as my blog's avatar, then give her a cool pedal car and a Victorian love seat to deliver to a theater for me. Putting earlier artists' creations to present-day use. Go! Public Domain!
I believe that as a society we need both robust copyright protections so that creators' benefit from their work AND lively sharing and free use of ideas (written and imaged) so we can go create more cool ideas! Getting that balance right is the trick.
Look into the topic yourself. Develop some informed opinions. Then let your congress people know what they should think, huh?
Earlier posts on copyright: Copyright On Copyright and the Public Domain SNIPPET # 7 Copyright on the Internet Copyright Has Never Been This Cute