Copyright isn’t a topic that’s likely to set your world on fire, but it’s impossible to avoid. Whether you’re a creator or a consumer of original content, you need to be aware of the issues. In this week’s Thing, we’re interested in how you can protect your work and avoid getting sued.
We’ll start with a general introduction, before moving on to the problems posed by the internet. Then we’ll explore Creative Commons – a model for making copyright more flexible.
Copyright: A Very Short Introduction
Copyright covers original creations for a limited period. This includes books, artwork, software, films, and journal articles. Protection is automatic (you don’t have to complete any forms) and it expires after a fixed term and enters the public domain. The length of this term depends on the territory in which the work was published. In the UK, copyright usually applies for 70 years after the death of the creator. For instance, George Bernhard Shaw died in 1950 – if you wanted to stage Pygmalion or reproduce part of it in a book, you’d need to seek permission from his literary estate. However, after 1st January 2021, you can do whatever you like with the material, even create your own Eliza Doolittle action figure.
This situation is complicated by the fact that the copyright term in the US is only 50 years. You could market your action figure in New York now, but in London it would constitute infringement.
The rules are also different if you’re using the creation for scholarly purposes. So, it would be acceptable for you to quote part of Pygmalion, so long as you include analysis. This is known as fair dealing. We’re going to focus on digital objects for the rest of this Thing, but if you want more guidance on quoting copyright material in your academic writing, take a look at this comprehensive and straightforward article Quotation, Criticism and Review’ by Hayleigh Bosher. And for a broader discussion of copyright, visit the University of Sussex Library’s excellent guide.
Copyright on the Internet
There’s a common and unhelpful misconception that copyright law doesn’t apply on the internet. This arises in part from the ease with which it’s possible to download and share gigabytes worth of content. But, a photograph taken by Man Ray is still protected by copyright, even if it’s been reproduced dozens of times on different websites. If you wanted to include it in a blog post, you’d need to seek permission and pay a fee. Failure to do so could result in a legal challenge and a hefty bill. Of course, it’s impossible to police the internet and catch every copyright violation. However, rights holders will often seek to make a high profile example of some culprits.
Where the cost of creating a digital object is very high (e.g. a Hollywood film), the owners will vigorously pursue those who infringe their rights. The claim for loss of revenue could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Although the stakes aren’t as high when reusing material from an unknown filmmaker, it’s still illegal — and also bad form. She might not be a position to sue you, but a Twitter storm could be equally damaging to your reputation.
This advice from Chris Morrison and Jane Secker on the LSE Blog is worth keeping in mind:
“In most cases you can avoid unpleasantness when working with copyright material by thinking about what you’re doing and, by acting in good faith, always citing your sources and attributing creators/rights holders.”
Sometimes attribution is sufficient, but in other cases you’ll need to seek permission and/or pay a fee. All material should be considered on a case by case basis. There’s lots more useful advice from Jane and Chris on the UK Copyright Literacy website and you can also get updates through Twitter @UKCopyrightLit.
A good way of staying within the law and avoiding fees is to make use of websites that aggregate sources in the public domain. We looked at a few in last week’s Thing on finding images. There’s also a comprehensive directory available through Harvard. This covers material in the public domain, and also content licensed for reuse through Creative Commons, which we’ll investigate in a moment.
Protecting Your Assets with Creative Commons
Under standard copyright, all rights are reserved and there is very little flexibility. With Creative Commons licenses, you opt to reserve some rights and waive others. This model, run by a not-for-profit organisation, helps expand the range of creative works available for others to build upon and share. There are four types of license:
BY – ATTRIBUTION – Anyone can copy, distribute, display, or perform the material if the creator is credited. You don’t have to seek permission.
NC – NON-COMMERCIAL — The material cannot be used for financial gain. So, you could show a film, but not make a profit from selling tickets.
ND — NO DERIVATIVE WORKS — You can reuse the material, but not adapt it in any way. It must remain intact.
SA — SHARE ALIKE — You’re free to adapt the material, e.g. use an image as the basis for your own artwork, but you must then share it under an identical license.
These licenses can be used in various combinations and are indicated by standard symbols.
In this example, the material can be reused provided that the creator is credited, it’s not for financial gain, and that any derivative works are shared under the same license:
Under the next license, you can’t use the material as the basis for your own work. You can simply reproduce the original form, along with an attribution:
If you’ve created your own digital object, you can use the Share Your Work tool to generate the appropriate license. Simply answer a few questions and then copy and paste the code to add the license to your content.
The Creative Commons website also includes advice on attributing sources and a database that allows you to search material available under this model.
Copyright is a vast and complicated area. We’ve managed to address only a few of the issues in this Thing, but please do follow the links if you need more guidance on specific parts. Your university librarians will also be experts in this area.
Here are some general tips to protect yourself and others:
- Don’t reuse material indiscriminately from the internet. Always check the original source, especially if it came from an expensive image library (they have lots of lawyers).
- Buy images from a stock photo site (e.g. ShutterStock) and don’t exceed the specified permissions — e.g. if you have permission to include it in a journal article, this probably can’t also post it on your blog.
- Where appropriate, check public domain and Creative Commons sources first.
- If possible, create your own graphics and photos, then license them through Creative Commons or make your terms explicit.
Ultimately, honouring copyright makes the internet a better place for all of us.
Here are the suggested activities for this week:
- Spend some time working out how copyright affects you.
- If you’re using images or video on your blog, make sure you’ve attributed them correctly and/or sought permission.
- For those of you who’ve created your own content, get a Creative Commons license.