Be Careful What You Use – Students and Copyright Laws

Be Careful What You Use – Students and Copyright Laws

Students have access to a large volume of information through the Internet and online library databases, and many new or inexperienced students believe that as long as they are using the information for their school work they are exempt from copyright rules. This is not the case because copyrighted work is still protected; however, allowances are made through the Fair Use doctrine and Creative Commons licensing that lets you work with a portion of the information, provided that the source has been properly acknowledged. If you understand the guidelines you can avoid the possibility of copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Copyright Basics

According to the Copyright Office, a copyright is defined as “a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “˜original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.” Nancy Sims, a lawyer and librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, states that many people own a copyright to their own work because “it automatically applies to book manuscripts, articles, blog posts, artwork””almost any copyrightable object that people create.” The University of Texas Libraries put together a Copyright Crash Course reminding students that “copyright law governs the use of materials you might find on the Internet, just as it governs the use of books, video or music in the analog world.”

What you need to know as a student is that anything you write, from a school paper to a discussion board post, that contains new or original thought, belongs to you. The same is true for information that you find within the online library databases or through an Internet search – whether it is a company website, blog, article, or another student’s paper. Having easy access to information does not mean that you are free to use it any manner – what others create, they own. This applies to whatever you create, you are the owner.

Fair Use

When you are completing your course assignments, the Fair Use doctrine is the first exception that allows you to utilize copyrighted work without asking permission of the owner. There are four particular guidelines that determine fair use:
1.    The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2.    The nature of the copyrighted work;
3.    The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4.    The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

For your class work, the first two criteria listed above (Purpose and Character, Nature of Copyrighted Work) are met because you are using information within an educational setting. To conduct your research, the use of an online library database is a good starting point. When you find academic sources, including peer reviewed scholarly journals, you will have the information you need to properly acknowledge the author of the source.

The third criteria listed above (Amount Used) is often a source of confusion for students when we talk about Fair Use in class, and the Copyright Office confirms that defining Fair Use is challenging because “the distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”

Nancy Sims addressed this Fair Use issue by referring to it instead as the principle of “classroom use.” The University of Maryland University College has sought to further clarify Fair Use by creating the following guidelines:
“¢    ”The more you use, the less likely it will be considered fair use.
“¢    Does the amount you use exceed a reasonable expectation? If it approaches 50 percent of the entire work, it is not likely to be considered a fair use of the copyrighted work.
“¢    Is the particular portion used likely to adversely affect the author’s economic gain? If you use the “˜heart’ or “˜essence’ of a work, it is less likely your use will be considered fair.”

I am actually surprised by the 50% rule because I do not encourage students to ever include that much information from their source(s). In my post A Guide for Effective Academic Writing and Research I reminded you to avoid over-utilizing your sources. The purpose of your coursework is to demonstrate your critical thinking and analysis of the subject, occasionally supported by information from your sources. When I’m reviewing an assignment I would rather read more of your analysis than quotes from your sources. I’ve heard that some educators establish a guideline for written assignments that there should be no more than one source utilized per paragraph. I do not like establishing such a strict rule and instead, encourage students to provide their own ideas, thoughts, and knowledge first – and to view their assignments as an opportunity to create something new and original for the subject or topic. Ask your instructors for clarification about their expectations for the use of sources.

The fourth criteria established within the Fair Use doctrine and listed above has to do with the fair market value of the copyrighted work, which the University of Maryland University College referred to as the “author’s economic gain.” This is generally not an issue for students because they are using sources as background information and research for their assignments and discussion responses. Academic institutions have to consider this guideline when utilizing copyrighted articles or other materials within the class. In other words, as an instructor I cannot provide an article in the class without obtaining the author’s permission. I can share the name of the article and information needed for you to find it in the online library database, but not a digital copy of the full article, unless I have sought permission to do so. Some institutions are addressing this challenge by utilizing services such as the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), which will secure permissions and pay the required royalties so that the materials can be used in class.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

As you search for information through the Internet you may find a Creative Commons licensing statement. This is an option a copyright holder can use to provide permission for the source to be used. For example, you may be allowed to copy the information without prior permission, provided that you acknowledge the author or owner of the source. The following are additional definitions of a Creative Commons license:
“¢    ”Applying a Creative Commons license to your work is a serious decision. When you apply a CC license to your work, you give permission to anyone to use the work for the full duration of applicable copyright, absent a violation of the license.
“¢    All CC licenses require users to attribute the original creator(s) of a work, unless the creator has waived that requirement or asked that her name be removed from an adaptation or collection.”

If you find a source and there is a CC attribution statement, carefully review the wording. You must acknowledge the author of the source to remain in compliance with the Creative Commons license. The source cannot be used in any form (without permission) if all rights have been restricted and you’ll know that this applies if you see the words “All Rights Reserved.”

The issue of copyright protection continues to gain attention as technology enables information to be accessed in different ways and the nature of how sources are distributed continues to raise new concerns. It was recently noted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, How to Protect Copyright Is Key Topic at Publishers’ Meeting, that publishers will continue to fight for traditional copyright restrictions to be strictly upheld.

The best rule of thumb for your work as a student is to view your sources as support for the development of your own ideas. Be sure to check with your school for policies and procedures related to copyright laws and Fair Use. More importantly, talk to your instructor about any questions or concerns you may have about these guidelines. For additional information, the Copyright Office provides a very helpful list of resources: Information Circulars and Factsheets.

Discuss your thoughts about copyright laws and Fair Use via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Tom Chance/Westend61/Corbis

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