Many college students get into trouble because they don’t understand or follow copyright laws. While doing school projects, papers, or presentations, students may end up violating copyright laws.
Students often hear about plagiarism. Plagiarism is not a law; it’s a breach of ethics. It may get you fired or cause you to fail an exam, but it isn’t illegal. Plagiarism is using another person’s thoughts, words, or ideas as if they were your own. A helpful rule of thumb to avoid inadvertent plagiarism is not to look at another person’s work while you are trying to write out what you think, feel or believe: that way you are forced to come up with your own way of expressing your views or what you’ve learned.
In a nutshell, infringing on a copyright means that you have copied or distributed another’s work without permission. It’s illegal and may also get you fired or kicked out of a class.
Shakespeare isn’t copyrighted any longer, but if you use his work and call it your own, that’s plagiarism. Quoting a long passage from someone else’s book is not plagiarism if you disclose where you got it. But it might still infringe the author’s copyright.
Here are four tips to help students avoid violating copyright laws:
1. Rights Belong to the Owners
The author or creator of any type of work is usually the owner of the work they create. However, the author may be working for another organization, in which case the organization would own the copyright to the work. For example, if you write for school newspapers, creating news articles, graphics, and pictures, the work you create belongs to the school. The same will apply when you create work for an employer after you graduate. You may have a byline in the newspaper, but rights to your work belong to the school and anyone wanting to use those works must get permission from the school.
2. Get Permission to use Copyrighted Material
If you would like to use something that someone else has created you must get permission from whoever owns the copyright. Even performing or displaying another person’s work–like plays, music, and films–requires you to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Just because something is available online doesn’t mean you have permission to use it.
3. In-Class School Presentations
The Copyright Act includes certain exemptions for displaying or performing copyrighted works in a “live teaching” environment—like your classroom. That means you can normally use pre-recorded films (like scenes within a DVD) to add some spice to your in-class presentations. But the Copyright Act doesn’t have an exemption for copying them. You’ll have to buy your own DVD to use in class.
4. Images in School Reports
When you write a paper for school—something like a report, a research paper, or an essay—any quotations that you take from other material are normally very brief and would not present a copyright concern. (Be sure to include a credit line.) But if your paper includes photographs or illustrations that others created, you should obtain permission from the owner of that photograph or illustration. The exception is when the owner has given blanket permission (this is the case for all images in Wikipedia) or if the image is not protected by copyright (for example, it was created before 1923 or it was created by the federal government.)
Copyright laws are intended to protect the rights of people who create. We all benefit when we encourage the creative works of others. When you create a work of art or write a story or compose a song, you’ll want others to respect your ownership of what you have created. So remember to show the same respect for the work of others. Ask permission and give credit.