By Larry Magid
When I was in high school, the only way to copy someone else’s work was to painstakingly retype or re-write it from a book, periodical or another student’s paper. Today it’s as simple as copy and paste.
That has many publishers and educators worried. Educators worry about plagiarism, lack of integrity and loss of learning opportunity by those who take the lazy way out by stealing other people’s work. Publishers, along with those in the music and video industries, worry about the theft of their intellectual property and potential loss of revenue.
But unlike most of the ink in books and newspapers, it’s not all black and white. There is such a thing as “fair use,” that actually protects the rights of students, educators, journalists and others to use copyrighted material without having to ask for permission. There are also works that are not copyrighted or licensed specifically to be reused.
I say this not to encourage the mere copying of other people’s work, but to point out that one cannot only be legal but also creative by using material from others to add value to what they create.
My nonprofit, ConnectSafely.org, has just published a free online booklet, The Educator’s Guide to Creativity & Copyright (ConnectSafely.org/Copyright) to explain what students and educators can and cannot legally and ethically do with material they find online. Some of this advice also applies to journalists, podcasters and other creators. The guide was written by Kerry Gallagher, David Sohn and me.
As the guide points out, “Copyright generally requires you to get permission before you copy, distribute, or re-use someone else’s copyrighted work. But sometimes, permission isn’t needed because what you want to do qualifies as fair use.” For example, fair use allows “limited use of copyrighted work without permission for purposes such as news reporting, commentary, education, parody, and the creation of new works that use someone else’s creative work in entirely new ways.”
While there are no hard and fast rules, there are four factors that, together, determine if something likely qualifies for fair use:
- Purpose and character of use, such as commentary, news reporting, criticism, or education, or to create a new work that transforms the original by adding new expression
- Nature of the original, such as if the material you want to use is primarily informative or factual in nature, as opposed to highly creative
- Amount and substance: It is generally OK to use only a small portion of the other person’s work and only as much as you need to make your point – such as a single paragraph from a much longer text or a short clip from a much longer video. There are, however, cases where you can use an entire work such as a song or video, but the more you use, the less likely it is to be fair use. But even a short video or audio clip could be a copyright violation, especially if used for commercial purposes.
- Effect on the market, such as whether your use of the material is likely to impact that original owner’s ability to sell or otherwise distribute the work.
Other ways to use content
In addition to fair use, there are many other ways to use content to incorporate in academic papers or, in some cases, even for commercial use. These include material in the public domain that is not copyrighted or whose copyright has expired (any content created before 1923). Material from government websites may be in the public domain, but some government sites may include copyrighted material, such as photographs obtained from other sources. There is a website usa.gov/government-works that explains how you may be able to use content from places like NASA, National Park Service, Library of Congress and other government sites.
There are also works that are licensed under Creative Commons where the creator of the work has authorized people certain rights, depending upon the specific Creative Commons Licence. Some of these licenses allow for virtually any type of use while others have restrictions such as non-commercial use or only if you don’t make any changes. There are rules about attribution but it’s always a good idea to cite the source of any material you use. Our guide goes into detail on these licenses. There is even a Creative Commons search engine (search.creativecommons.org) that makes it easy to find materials that you can use in your work. The results pages on Google Images search has a tools menu that includes usage rights.
More than just legal issues
Of course, just because something may be legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Parents and educators need to work with students to make sure they understand academic rules and ethics such as citing your source, making sure you’re adding value with your own thoughts and ideas and making sure that sources you quote are credible. It’s also important to understand the difference between plagiarism (claiming other people’s work as your own) and copyright infringement (using someone’s work without permission) and how that affects both legal and ethical standards. Even taking a single paragraph from an uncopyrighted work could still be considered plagiarism if you make it appear as if it’s your original work.
It’s about creativity
At the end of the day, the purpose of our guide is to encourage people to be creative and expressive. It’s great when you can legally incorporate and cite someone else’s work to help amplify your original thoughts, but whether it’s a student paper, a blog post, a video, a podcast or a newspaper column, the goal should always be to add value and be creative.