Copyright: it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law!

copyright_bewareWhen someone makes something, it is theirs to do with as they wish. If you make food, you can eat it, give it away, sell it. If you build a house, you can live in it or sell it. You choose what happens to your property.

There’s a difference with the things you make with your mind. If you come up with a  song, or write a book, or design a logo, or create a painting, for the most part what you have made is intangible. It can’t be held and passed on to one other person. It can, however, be spread to many people – especially in this digital age.

It therefore becomes a little harder for someone who makes what’s termed intellectual property to maintain control of their creation. If I write a song, it might be sung by other people. It could spread around the world and be sung by millions of people. (I should be so lucky!)

copyrightTo help protect the creators of intellectual property (initially, the writers of books and their publishers), the legal concept of copyright was created. Laws were passed recognizing the right of creators to control their work and decide how it would be spread. (“Copyright” meant the creator – or publisher – has the right to copy that work.) There are now copyright laws in every country, and most countries have signed the Berne Convention which provides for copyright protection across national boundaries.

What does this mean for students and parents?

For creative students & parents who write poems, books, essays, blogs (like this one!), etc. or compose music, create videos, take photographs, etc. it means that there are legal systems in place to protect your work and ensure that you can control who uses it. It means that if someone else takes your work and uses it without your permission, there is a legal mechanism that you can use to stop that.

If you’re not creating work but interested in using someone else’s work – in school work or for your own personal work – it means that you can do so with the copyright holder’s permission. (It might be the creator, or it might be the publisher.)

How do I get permission to use something?

You write to the copyright holder and ask. It can be very simple. I’ve done it, and so have other teachers and students. It can get more complicated if the copyright holder is a big corporation.

What if I don’t want to ask permission or I can’t reach the copyright holder?

lady-justice-677945_1280There are provisions in copyright law to allow people to use protected works under certain conditions. This is called fair use of protected works. Your use of copyright-protected works may be fair use according to these four criteria:

  • The purpose and nature of how you use the work: if your use is transformative (that is, if it changes the nature of the work), then that is generally considered fair use. For example, if you use a work in a piece of criticism or analysis (a book review or an academic analysis) it is generally considered fair use. (This is what protects most students’ use of copyright-protected works in their school work.)
  • How much of the work you use: if you use a lot of the protected work (or all of it), that is generally considered less fair use than if you use a small portion. (The amount will vary: you should only use part of a long, epic poem while you might have to use all of a haiku.)
  • Whether your work will impact the ability of the creator (or copyright holder) to make money off their work. (If your work will limit the artist’s ability to sell their creation, then it’s not fair use.)
  • What kind of work you are using: if the original work is more factual, then it’s easier to claim fair use.

Fair use is not a strictly defined notion. It can cause problems for the artist: a famous case was of Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” poster of US President Barack Obama. Fairey used a photograph as basis for his poster, and considered his changing of that photograph into a cartoonish poster as fair use. This was taken to court and he had to settle with the copyright holder of the photograph.

Could I get in trouble for using copyright-protected work in my school assignment?

If a student properly cites his/her sources, and abides by the guidelines of fair use, then generally students can use copyright-protected works.

There have been cases where students have had problems, generally by posting entire works online or distributing protected works.

What if I use copyright-protected work in my own personal work?

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 8.59.46 AM
If you follow the fair use guidelines, you should be OK. As Shepard Fairey found out, those guidelines are not clear-cut.

Students do have problems with using protected works – perhaps the most common thing is that student videos uploaded to YouTube using protected music are taken down for violating copyright.

There is a lot of commercial music videos on YouTube, which generally fall into a few categories: official videos approved of by the artist/studio, licensed uses of the music (YouTube has a feature called AudioSwap which allows you to use commercial music on your video), videos that are allowed or ignored (possibly with advertisements attached) and videos that slip through the cracks. According to YouTube’s own statistics, 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute. This means that there is far more video on the service than can possibly be effectively policed.

What if I download protected movies or music for my own personal use?

You are violating the right of the creator (or copyright holder – the company that produces & sells the movie or music) to decide how they want to distribute the work. You’ve probably found the music or movie from someone who has made an illegal copy of the work, and are therefore benefiting from someone else’s criminal activity.

That being said, there are many people who do exactly this. There are people who argue that it should be acceptable to download music for free, and others who rebut those arguments. In the end, it’s an individual’s ethical choice of whether or not to do this …but there’s no denying that it goes against copyright laws and copyright protection.

For other options of how to use and license work, see my other posts about Creative Commons licenses, the public domain, and academic honesty.

Image sources: the ©! image and dictionary photo are by me. The photo of the justice statue is by Ajel, taken from Pixabay, used under public domain. The featured image of the judge is a photograph by Mr. Barraud, taken from Flickr, used under public domain. Screenshot of Mashable page by me.


Cross-posted from my school blog.

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