This chapter includes information about:

  • The basics of U.S. copyright law
  • What meets the standard for Fair Use
  • The purpose of Creative Commons licenses

copyright1Understanding when it is and is not appropriate (and legal) to borrow from other works is essential to success in the communication industries. We want the work you produce in COM210 (like most WSU Communication courses) to be publishable outside of the classroom and in your commercial creative portfolio. Therefore, each of your projects in COM210 may only use other works when they would be allowed in a commercial setting.

Read the following linked content carefully before taking the Copyright Quiz.

Readings and Content

1. Copyright Quick Guide

This short but informative copyright quick guide from Columbia’s Copyright Advisory Office gives an excellent overview of copyright law.

2. Copyright Law on Campus

WSU has an excellent copyright guide from University Communications. Make sure to read the following short chapters:

3. Owning the Past: A Brief History of Copyright

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s chapter from “Digital History” describes the historical background and evolution of copyright law.

4. What is Fair Use?

As noted in “A Brief History of Copyright,” fair use protection is a key component of copyright law. This is especially important in the digital world of remixes and idea-sharing. To see how the fair use balancing test may apply to a specific instance, you may also want to review the Fair Use Checklist linked in the reading. WSU also offers a good overview of fair use with an interactive worksheet.

5. Creative Commons Licenses

As the digital remix culture has become more prevalent, more and more creative works are being released under “Creative Commons” licenses. These licenses grant other authors more freedom to use original work from the original authors. In each unit of COM210, we will provide resources for finding images, audio and video content shared under a CC license.

Click the following link to read the descriptions of license types.

If you are interested in the origins of Creative Commons, this TED talk by Prof. Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, is highly recommended: Lawrence Lessig TED Talk

6. FAQs on P2P

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing has become rampant in a post-Napster world. This list of questions from the University of Arizona provides a good overview of what is legal and what’s not. Most information that specifically mentions the University of Arizona is also applicable to WSU. WSU also has a P2P guide geared toward on-campus users.

7. Know Your Rights: Copyright and Fair Use

Can you use 30 seconds of a song? Can you use photos you find on Google Images? This brief guide from the Student Press Law Center, a legal advocacy group for student media, answers some common practical questions that arise when publishing materials.

Other Legal Restrictions

Along with copyright law, there are other types of laws and licenses that restrict the use of some media.

Trademark law is about protecting consumers and brands, rather than creative works, but it has some similarities to copyright law. A brand name, logo and even other distinguishing characteristics such as color schemes can be trademarked. Trademark infringement only occurs if there is a likelihood of consumer confusion. For this reason, using a company’s logo in a news report or a product review is usually not a violation, but it could be trademark infringement to use a company’s logo in a way that suggests they are involved with the project. The Digital Media Law Project has an excellent guide on this topic: Using the Trademarks of Others.

Privacy law is about protecting people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy from being recorded in ways they do not expect. Although laws vary by state and jurisdiction, it’s generally OK to take photos and record audio/video in public places without permission. But if you’re in a privately owned location or place that is not open to the general public, then it is best to get permission. It’s important to note that Washington state is a two-party consent state, which means that it’s illegal to secretly record a private conversation. Everyone involved must be notified that the recording is taking place.

Other licensing restrictions are put in place by entertainment companies and venues, including sports venues. Attending events such as concerts and sports games often implies agreement to comply with restrictions, such as not shooting video or taking photos. These rules vary significantly, and it may require research to determine what is permitted. For example, Mariners baseball games at Safeco Field have the following policy: “Personal photography and video are permitted in the ballpark provided the images are for personal use only. However, videotaping any game action is prohibited. Photographic support tools that may interfere with the enjoyment of the game for others (tripods, detachable lenses) are not permitted in the ballpark.”

Common Misconceptions

These are the most common misconceptions about copyright law that come up in COM210.

Misconception #1: If I’m in it, it’s mine to use

Unless it’s a selfie, a photo of you is not actually yours — the copyright belongs to whoever took the photo. But if you know who took the photo, you can just ask for their permission to use it. Professional photos that you pay for, such as senior portraits or wedding photos, likely include a contract with the photographer that transfers ownership or explains how the photos can be used.

Misconception #2: If it’s on my computer, it’s mine to use

Having possession of a digital file doesn’t mean you own the copyright to that work, just like photocopying a magazine doesn’t mean you now own that magazine content. This is especially important for music files — you may have purchased a song for listening, but that doesn’t give you the right to use that file for other purposes.

Misconception #3: Copyright doesn’t matter if it’s for a school project

This is a common misinterpretation of Fair Use, since the Fair Use balancing test takes educational uses into account. However, it is just one of several factors. Educational projects are not exempted from copyright law. Additionally, projects in COM210 are published online for a public audience, so this is not a strictly educational use.

Misconception #4: It must be OK because other people have used it

Misuse of copyrighted material is rampant on the internet, so you can’t make assumptions about whether material is free-to-use. This is kind of like speeding — lots of people do it without consequences, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal. It’s important to find the original source with a documented license.

Misconception #5: I can’t use any copyrighted material

In many cases you can use copyrighted material, you just have to get permission. Often the most difficult part is figuring out who owns the copyright and how to contact them. But many photographers, musicians, videographers and other artists are happy to share their work for a specific purpose if you plan ahead and ask.