It’s a new semester, and that means students everywhere are jumping in to digital publishing, either for fun, self-expression or as part of a classroom assignment.
While student work may seem to have limited scope, at some level it’s no different from a page at nytimes.com. If it’s published online, it is a public document and can potentially reach a worldwide audience. So it’s essential that students respect copyright.
The bulletproof way to avoid copyright liability is to create all the information yourself. Your words, your images. If you’re writing a blog post, shoot your own photo or create your own illustration.
Under Section 105 of Title 17, which covers copyright law, the United States government does not hold copyrights, so you can generally use images from government websites.
Copyright has a “safety valve” called Fair Use, which allows people to incorporate copyrighted works into other works. This allows a book reviewer to reproduce a passage from a novel, for example. But be careful – the boundaries of fair use are uncertain. Case law only provides a set of general principles, which include: purpose and character of the use; nature of the copied work; amount and substantiality of the use; and the effect upon the work’s value.
A newer concept for protecting intellectual property rights while accepting that we live in a “Remix” culture is the Creative Commons License. Under this model, online content can be shared under conditions that the author permits. For example, you might be able to use someone else’s photograph on your blog, provided that you credit the source and link back to the original. You can learn more about finding licensed work on the Creative Commons website. The photo sharing site Flickr has a “Creative Commons” filter on its advanced search page to help you find sharable images.
In the end, no matter the source of your words, sounds and images, responsibility for their legal and appropriate use is yours. So inform yourself, and choose wisely. This prudent practice will also help you avoid trouble when you’re creating messages for an employer.
Additional resources to help locate copyright-free images: