Copyright is a complex topic that affects all of us. Whether we are creators or consumers, it is important for us to recognize the laws surrounding the resources we find and use not just online, but in the world around us.
One of the most complicated things about copyright is in the use of terminology surrounding it. Students know what plagiarism is, and are taught that copying is wrong. Their teachers encourage them to rewrite what they read so that it appears in their own words, but, based on my experience, many do not require students to credit anyone but the source from where the information was found. It’s important for students to know that the information they find online does not belong to the site it was posted on, but the individual author or creator of the work.
Terms such as “fair use” can also be hard to understand. Fair use is often thought of as a blanket form of protection, on the basis that a resource is being used for educational purposes. The fact is that fair use allows people to use works that aren’t their own without getting permission and without paying for it when they are being used for purposes including news reporting, teaching, research, criticism or commenting (Hirtle, Hudson & Kenyon, 2009). It doesn’t mean the owners of those works don’t have to be credited.
The concept of public domain is based on creative materials that aren’t protected property. Such materials are, as the term implies, owned by the public, and can be used by anyone in any way they see fit without permission or authorization. Copyright laws do not apply to anything in the public domain.
Open source is concept in which a work is shared online and dedicated to the public domain. Open source files and programs are meant to be used, shared, and modified freely by anyone, but are still owned by the creators. While such files typically include no restrictions, they may require specific crediting to the original authors.
Creative commons is a system in which creators can share their original works for use, modification or sharing with others. Owners in creative commons can determine how they want their works to be licensed, specifying how they want to be credited, whether their works can be modified or shared, and whether they can be used commercially. The TEACH Act was passed by Congress in 2002, and was based on copyright laws as they pertain to the use of materials in educational settings. The acronym stands for Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization, and the Act addresses the use of digital materials in distance learning and teaching specifically. It allows for teachers to use a wider range of resources in their courses, which can be shared with students online, who may store and copy them as needed for educational purposes. The Act does not allow for the distribution of purchased materials, such as textbooks or licensed materials.
Copyright laws are complex. With such a vast variety of intellectual property and media, it can be difficult to determine what is right and what is wrong when referencing or using others’ works. As good (digital) citizens it’s important for us to do what we can to understand our responsibilities to respecting the creators of any materials we use.
Hirtle, P.B., Hudson, E., & Kenyon, A. T. (2009). Copyright & cultural institutions: Guidelines for digitization for U.S. libraries, archives, & museums. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.