Copyright and Writing

How might you more effectively integrate multimedia components into your assignment?

“Let rhetoric be an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion.”
– Aristotle, 
Rhetoric (1.2.1)

With great resources comes great responsibility.

Composition does not merely refer to the writing of words on a paper or in a word processing document but also includes the holistic act of using all forms of media (images, videos, sounds, and texts) in a variety of different mediums (paper, blogs, websites, YouTube, podcasts, etc.). Embedding images into your blogs posts, remediating text into images, and cutting and remixing video and audio are now daily realities in the writing classroom. If Aristotle were still around today, he would surely adjust his working definition of rhetoric to encompass not only the ability to see but also the ability to use the available means of persuasion—and there’s a lot out there.

However, when you begin to use these resources in your own compositions, you’ll find that it’s not as simple as taking whatever you like. When we start composing with sound, audio, video, and image, we’re much more likely to bump into legal guidelines as well. Copyright laws address which resources you can use, why you can or cannot use them, and how much of them you can use. The best way to ensure that you are using digital resources ethically—and legally!—is to stay informed. Unfortunately, staying informed on issues surrounding copyright laws can be very complicated, as sources that explain the laws tend to be intentionally vague, technical, and political. Below you will find a series of main points that attempt to provide a basic framework for understanding current copyright laws as they pertain to the multimedia resources you will inevitably be using throughout your time in composition and beyond.

Educational versus Commercial Use

As seen in the video, there is a big—and I mean big—difference between using content for educational purposes versus using content for commercial purposes. Because we are in an academic context, both students and teachers alike have more free range in how they can use content. Movies can be shown, music can be played, and readings can be distributed as handouts because they are for strictly educational purposes and take place in face-to-face classroom settings. However, do not assume that the practices for using content in school are the same when you post material to the world online, share it outside of class, or even if you are trying to make money on campus.

Fair Use Doctrine

Content used for educational purposes falls under the copyright doctrine of fair use. Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances.

And for people who love to make things, fair use is good news! It reminds us of the original purpose of copyright law as described in the U.S. Constitution: to encourage people to compose new works. After all, if people thought their writings, videos, and sounds could be reused freely by anyone, many composers would be unable to sell their work and make a living, so they might stop composing altogether. But that right to protect work you create shouldn’t be 100% restrictive; there should be times when others can legally use parts of your work as they make new compositions. That’s the whole point: encouraging people to make creative new compositions.

That’s where fair use comes in. It says, in effect, “If you’re careful about how you use copyrighted work, you can do so without asking for permission from the creator of the work or the copyright holder. Be careful, but go and create new things!”

But there’s a problem: the fair use doctrine is tough to apply exactly. From a legal standpoint, decisions revolve around four factors. Your answer to each of these questions will determine whether or not your use of content will indeed be characterized as fair use.* (There are also excellent online resources to help you think through where you stand on each of these factors. One of the best is “Thinking Through Fair Use” at the University of Minnesota’s University Libraries site.)

  1. What is the purpose of your use of the copyrighted work? You first need to consider whether or not your use is for commercial or educational purposes.
  2. What is the nature of the copyrighted work? This question really comes down to whether or not the work is fact-based or creative. Ideas or facts cannot be copyrighted, but if you begin to enter into the area of creative expressions, then you will need to further qualify your work.
  3. How much of the original work are you going to use? Typically, you can only use a small portion of the work and from a numerical standpoint this varies. The rule of thumb is generally at around 10% of the original source is available for fair use, whether it is an audio file or video file.
  4. Will you harm the market for this product by using this material? Not surprisingly, copyright laws are in place to protect the personal “property” of the original creator. If the original creator is in a position to lose money from your use of the content, then chances are your use of the content will not fall under the fair use doctrine and you may be reprimanded.

Ultimately, like many legal regulations, the question of fair use comes down to a matter of intent. If you are using copyrighted content for school projects that won’t circulate beyond the classroom, then chances are you will fall well within the fair use doctrine. But knowing the information above is important if you intend to use copyrighted material for commercial or non-academic purposes—including if you share your academic work online for anyone to see.

Public Domain: Not All Content Is Created Equal

While fair use refers to ways that you can legally use copyrighted material, public domain describes content that is freely available to use in your country however you want. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is in the public domain, so you can do whatever you want with the text: add zombie scenes into the story, make a movie from the story and share it online, record yourself reading the entire novel and posting it online, copy and paste the entire novel into a blog post, or whatever else you can imagine. With a copyrighted book, you couldn’t do any of these things without the permission of the copyright owner.

In the United States, deciding what is public domain and what isn’t is sometimes tricky. The short version is that if something was published before 1923, it’s in the public domain; do whatever you like with it. If it was published after 1989, it won’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the author dies. If it’s in between 1923 and 1989, you’ll have to do some online searching to make a determination of the work’s copyright status.

But don’t miss this point: not everything on the Internet is in the public domain. Just because you can view the content on the Internet, which is provided for free in many places, it does not automatically give you the permission to disseminate the content for whatever reason. It is your own personal responsibility to ensure whether the content is copyrighted and it is up to you to figure out what the appropriate ways are to use the content.

But almost always, it makes more sense to take a careful approach. If you don’t know that you can legally use content, don’t use it—especially if you’re sharing it online beyond the closed doors of a classroom environment. Say that a photographer takes a beautiful picture and posts it on her blog. Even if the picture and the blog say absolutely nothing about copyright, you still don’t have the legal right to use that picture in your own work (unless your use can justifiably be described as fair use). Let me say that again: you can’t just grab something from Google Images and use it in your own blog. Most of those images are copyrighted—they’re not in the public domain.