Copyright Basics for Teaching

If you do not have a clear understanding of the U.S. Copyright law, especially that which applies to Internet resources, you might inadvertently be teaching your students to steal without realizing it. Here are the most basic facts you and your students need to know to avoid copyright infringement.

Copyright basics: what can or can’t be copyrighted

Copyright is literally the right to copy information. In most cases, that right belongs to the person who created and “fixed” the work in its finished form. Original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works can be copyrighted. That covers a wide range of material such as poetry, novels, photographs, cartoons, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Material that is not original but copied from others cannot be given copyright protection.

Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, nor can operating procedures. However, the way facts, ideas, and procedures are expressed may be able to be copyrighted. That is why dozens of poems saying spring is the season of renewal can each be afforded copyright protection: each one expresses the basic idea differently.

Other items that cannot be copyrighted are discoveries and inventions, which can be given patent protection, and words, phrases, and symbols and designs used to identify the source of goods or services. Those can be given trademark protection.

Four mistaken ideas about copyright

Many people hear the term “public domain” and mistakenly believe that material that is on public display, such as material in blogs or websites, is OK to copy. That is not true. The term public domain has nothing to do with the accessibility of the material: it usually means any copyright on the material has expired.

Many people think that unless something bears a copyright notice they can duplicate and share the information freely. That is not true. Copyright legally exists as soon as a work is created and fixed in some tangible, perceptible form. It is not necessary for a work to be registered with the copyright office or even for the work to contain a copyright notice.

Some people mistakenly believe that they may copy material from the Internet as long as they don’t make any money from using the material. That is not true either.

Other people think as long as they share the material just with a few people, it is OK to copy it. That is definitely not true. Sharing copyrighted material with even one other person is an infringement of the copyright owner’s legal rights.

Fair use is limited to small portions

Under a provision of the copyright law called fair use, you or your students can legally reproduce a small portion of a copyrighted work in a review or a discussion of the work, such as a research paper. The law, however, does not define what a “small portion” is. Many scholars consider fair use to be less than 10 or 20 percent of the whole work, but copyright holders are not so generous.

It is safe to assume that anything which can be downloaded as a single item should not be copied and shared even with one other person without prior written permission of the copyright holder even if the name of the copyright holder is clearly displayed on the material. That means a single photograph, a single web page, a single PDF, a single cartoon or this single blog post should not be shared unless the user has secured the copyright holder’s permission in advance.

Hyperlink use is acceptable

It is acceptable to provide a hyperlink to copyrighted material without notifying the copyright holder in advance. That allows the copyright holder to retain control over the material, which is the purpose of copyright, while allowing others a way to incorporate the material in their work.

More information

The US copyright office website gives detailed information about the copyright law written in remarkably clear language. The site also has kid-friendly tutorial in comic-strip format, “Taking the Mystery out of Copyright.”

©2010 Linda G. Aragoni.

Three unacceptable word confusions

The local Rotary Club has signs up around town about its winter fundraiser at which it is excepting [sic] donations of canned goods for the local food pantry.

Confusing  words with similar sounds or similar spellings, such as  except and accept, is an error not limited to Rotarians.  In fact, most of us occasionally fall into the trap.

Sometimes we fall  because we aren’t sure of the difference between a pair of words. (It took me decades to master the difference between bear and bare.)

Sometimes we slip because our fingers are used to typing certain keystrokes when the dictating voice in our heads pronounces a particular set of sounds.

Sometimes, though, people are confused about terms that neither sound nor look anything alike. Here are three I’ve run across in the last few weeks that people in the education arena need to know.

1. Reprints and citations

I’ve had a rash of people lately requesting permission to reprint material from my website in term papers for graduate courses.  It’s usually obvious that the individual wants only to borrow ideas or quote a couple of sentences with appropriate credit.

Reprints are duplicates of the original, nothing omitted. A reprint request is essentially a request for a one-time use of copyrighted information. The person who intends to copy the material gets advance permission so as not to be charged with copyright infringement.

By contrast, using a small portion of information from a source in a review or analytical paper is considered fair use within the US copyright law and requires no pre- (or post-) approval from the copyright holder. Fair use does require a citation, but that citation is a matter of ethics and academic etiquette rather than a federal copyright issue.

2. Text and graphics

When asked what kind of material they wish to reprint from my website, people invariably check graphic. In most every case, what they explain they want to use is text. Apparently, they think that anything that is visible is a graphic.

In the publishing world, when text and graphic are used as distinct categories, text is written words, such as the material you are reading now. A graphic is an image, such as a diagram, a photograph, or a sketch. A graphic may include text, but it is more than just text.

A small amount of text may make sense out of context. A sentence, for example, may sum up an entire chapter or book. By contrast, a small portion of a graphic almost never is capable of summing up the entire image.

Anyone who wants to use a graphic  is likely to need to seek permission before using the image unless its use is specifically permitted by a Creative Commons license.

3. Royalties and copyrights

A blogger recently recommended websites where people could get royalty-free photographs, which the blogger said could be used without getting the photographer’s permission. The post left the impression that royalty-free means copyright-free.

Not so.

Royalty free means no payment is required; it does not mean no permission is required. Except in cases of works made for hire, the creator of intellectual property is the copyright holder and has the right to restrict where his property is used.

Unless material is labeled for reuse (with a Creative Commons license, for example) or is in the public domain, photographs and other works, once in fixed form, are considered the property of their creator. The creator doesn’t have to register a work or put a copyright notice on it to own the copyright.

Incidentally, under US copyright law, “copyright free” intellectual property doesn’t exist. In the US, intellectual property goes from copyrighted to public domain without a purgatorial copyright-free period; intellectual property either belongs to one person/organization or it belongs to everybody.

Many of the photographs I use are royalty-free photos from Stock.XCHNG . Although the photographers don’t require payment, they typically require both notice to the copyright holder and a credit line in the work in which they are used.