Common Copyright Myths

There are many misconceptions about copyright. The most common one is that an academic purpose, no matter what is used or how it is used, is deemed a fair use. Not true! No use of copyrighted work is automatically fair, and the academic use is no exception.

The statements below are false--read the italicized comments to better understand copyright:

  • There's no symbol, it's okay to use it.
    • The copyright symbol has not been required since 1989. Absence is not a good indicator. If it is original, and fixed, someone owns it, regardless of whether or not the symbol is present.
  • It's old; I can't find the owner, so it's okay just to use it.
    • Check the age on our public domain chart . U.S. books published between 1923-1963 were often not 'renewed' at the Copyright Office and might be in the public domain--check Stanford's Renewal Database & you might find that the book can be freely copied! If the work is not U.S. or has not been published, or is non-book, the Cornell Copyright Term Chart is excellent, with extensive & illuminating footnotes. Remember: even if it's a challenge to locate an owner, if someone created it, it's still under owner rights protection. Use copyright clearance organizations to locate copyright holder. Only after extensive searching can you claim that a work is an 'orphan work,' but it can still be under protection. If so, consider your risk in using it, or modify your use of the work.
  • Educational use means I always have fair use for anything I need to use.
    • Commercial use can be fair, academic use can be not fair. Always apply the Fair Use test. Fair Use is not a conversational phrase, it's part of federal law and a weighted, assessment of use-without-permission.
  • It's already on the web, so it's public domain.
  • It was never published, so it's okay to use it without asking.
    • Copyright exists as soon as a work is original, and fixed. So someone owns it, even if it is not yet published. Ask. Potential market value [for owner] can be adversely affected by your unauthorized use & you could be infringing on others' rights.
  • It's out-of-print/author is dead, it's okay.
    • Our of print is not out-of-copyright. Rights may now belong to survivors, and publishers often purchase other publishers. Check at Copyright Clearance Center, for starters, or check a library catalog for serials that might have changed publishers.
  • Copyright is the same online as it is in class.
    • Copyright is more restrictive online, although the purpose may be the same. Example: TEACH Act offers more flexibility, but only for distance education, not just posting items online. The Copyright Act is technology neutral except for the DMCA and modern encrypted technologies. Apply Fair Use to all of your uses of another's work, if you want to use it without permission.
  • The author always has rights to copy his/her own work.
    • Authors often sign away some or all of their exclusive rights. Check first, and negotiate yours! Newer publications may carry a Creative Commons license (clearly noted) that will explain what rights you have & what attribution to use. Creative Commons is a new and growing form of electronic publishing that legally and deliberately puts works directly into the public domain, with no standard term protections. Look for their CC symbol.
  • Nobody is watching academic use.
    • Case is a prominent university with a large online population. Academic institutions are now being taken to court for various infringements. Web presence makes research easier, and enables others to see what you are copying and posting. Abiding by the law, while claiming fair use, is less expensive and troublesome than a court case.
  • I kept the symbol on it when I used it!
    • Crediting a source is good citation courtesy and ethics. It does not forgive unauthorized use.
  • I copied 10% so it's okay.
    • There are no "bright line" rules for fair use. A small amount could be the heart of the work and not fair use. There are no numeric rules, and that's a good thing--you'll want always to have the right to exercise judgment on what amount/which content you might need to use within your work. If it were numeric, you could easily break federal law if you exceeded the number.
  • I'll put it all on Reserve so they don't have to buy the book(s).
    • Reserve use must only supplement course materials. If it denies sales as a purpose, it's not fair use.
  • Emails aren't copyrightable, pass it along!
    • Someone created it. It's fixed, it's immediately copyrighted. Copies, distribution, displays, derivative works are the owner's rights, not yours.
  • Since no money is exchanged, it's okay.
    • Commercial use can be fair, academic use can be not fair. Always apply the Fair Use test.
  • Permissions take too long & cost too much.
    • Inconvenience is not a factor. Seek them if necessary, and allow time. They may be fast, reasonable, or free! Publishers now commonly have their Rights & Permissions Department online, often with online forms to make seeking permission easy.
  • TEACH ACT means I can put it all online.
    • TEACH Act has many restrictions and only applies to online courses for distance education, not the electronic use of materials students are expected to read outside of the class session.
  • I can't be sued (the university absorbs it all).
    • The individual is accountable, and liable for decisions and actions that might lead to an infringement claim in court. While faculty are indemnified at Case, adherence to the federal copyright laws is still the primary responsibility of the individual, and individual penalties are increased with recent legislation. Document your decisions, make an effort to learn copyright basics for more informed decisions.
  • I can't be sued for much, anyhow.
    • Damages can be $150,000 per item, plus various legal fees. Any lawsuit is more than the time and effort it takes to gain a foundation about copyright.
  • I don't know, I can plead ignorance.
    • Ignorance is no longer a defense. Copyright is very much in the news. Case's policy, copyright classes, and the Copyright @ Case website are indicative of efforts to educate the community, as required by law for the university to take advantage of legal benefits. Be informed.

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