Notes on copyright

What is copyright?

Copyright is an automatic right and arises whenever an individual or company creates a work. To qualify, a work should be regarded as original, and exhibit a degree of labour, skill or judgement.

  • What you cannot do
    Copy the work
    Adapt the work

  • What you can do
    Facts are not copyright – so you can use the same facts and report them in a different way
    Under the idea of “Fair dealing”, you can copy material for criticism and news reporting

How does that work?
(Adapted from Brad Templeton’s 10 big myths about copyright explained🙂

Fair use must involve real criticism and commentary, not just reproducing an article from the Times because you couldn’t find time to write your own story. Fair use is generally a short excerpt and should be attributed. It should not harm the commercial value of the work – in the sense of people no longer needing to buy it. Famously, copying just 300 words from former US President Gerald Ford’s 200,000 word memoir for a magazine article was ruled as not fair use, in spite of it being very newsworthy, because it was the most important 300 words – why he pardoned disgraced former US President Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal.

(See: UK Copyright Law Fact Sheet)

9 Big Myths about copyright explained
(adapted from Brad Templeton’s 10 big myths about copyright explained)

  • “If it doesn’t have a copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted.”

False. Copyright is automatic – most western countries follow the Berne copyright convention.

Always should assume other people’s works are copyrighted and may not be copied unless you know otherwise. This applies to text, photos and video.

  • “If I don’t charge for it, it’s not a violation.”

False. Whether you charge can affect the damages awarded in court – but does not change the offence. If the work has no commercial value, the violation is mostly technical and is unlikely to result in legal action. But it will still lose you marks in assessment.

  • “If I put ‘© Sky News’ (or whoever owns the copyright) next to the image I will be fine”

False. Just acknowledging the copyright does not give you permission to use it.

  • “If it’s posted to Flickr (or I find it on Google images), it’s in the public domain.”

False. Nothing modern and creative is in the public domain anymore unless the owner explicitly puts it in the public domain (see The Creative Commons Licence, below).

  • “My copying was just fair use!”

Make sure it is – just copying something with a few words of introduction or conclusion is not “fair use”.

  • “If you don’t defend your copyright you lose it.”

False. Copyright is effectively never lost these days, unless explicitly given away. This only applies to trade marks, which apply to names, and can be weakened or lost if not defended.

  • “If I make up my own stories, but base them on another work, my new work belongs to me.”

False. “Derivative works” – works based or derived from another copyrighted work – still belong to the owner of the original work. This is true even though the making of these new works is a highly creative process. If you write a story using settings or characters from somebody else’s work, you need that author’s permission.

That means almost all “fan fiction” is arguably a copyright violation. The exception is criticism and parody.

  • “It doesn’t hurt anybody – in fact it’s free advertising.”

It’s up to the owner to decide if they want the free ads or not. Always ask the copyright owner.

  • “They emailed me a copy, so I can post it.”

To have a copy is not to have the copyright. All the email you receive is copyright to the creator of that email. However, E-mail is not, unless previously agreed, secret. So you can certainly report on what email you are sent, and reveal what it says. You can even quote parts of it (ie “fair use”). Unless it is sent to you “off the record”. Then normal journalistic protocol applies.

The Creative Commons Licence

Anyone using Flickr and paying attention should have come across the idea of the Creative Commons Licence. This allows you to copy works created by others under certain conditions. Normally this involves giving them a credit (attribution), and that your usage is non-commercial.

Don’t assume all photos on Flickr are free to use under Creative Commons! Some users restrict the rights to their images, even though they are on a photo-sharing site.

Someone sued the Independent newspaper for publishing their photos of a snowy landscape without permission in a case that showed even national newspapers make big mistakes with internet copyright.

How to use images legally

  1. Take your own
    The best way to ensure you are completely legal – also gives you your own copyright material. And gets you more marks in assessment
  2. Ask permission
    Just contact the rights owner. At worst they will say no.
  3. Use an image with a Creative Commons Licence
    Just make sure you abide by its conditions, including giving a credit if required
  4. Use a web grab as part of your fair use critical commentary
    A web grab of an image in the context of a web site should be OK if you are using it as part of journalistic commentary. See this post on the recent UK student riot.

How not to use images legally

  1. Don’t hotlink (link direct to the image URL)
    It’s a grey area for copyright infringement, but linking directly to the image takes it out of context and uses up someone else’s computer resources (could be considered theft of bandwidth – a crime).