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Plagiarism, Fair Use and Your Website

Even if Copyrights are Present, Sometimes It’s OK to Copy

In the last post, we looked at how copyright is obtained and what it covers. Now let’s find out when it’s OK to use someone else’s content. There are a few categories to cover here, but first we want to look at how long a copyright lasts. According to US laws:

A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. In the case of “a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

This means you can quote Shakespeare without having to worry about the current publisher of “Macbeth” coming after you. However, there is a difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism. If you do quote “Macbeth” and try to claim it as your own work, even though it’s not protected by copyright you are still plagiarizing.

In school, this can get you in trouble and even kicked out. On the web, it can severely damage your credibility. Would an expert really need to steal someone else’s words?

Let’s say you purchased two internet marketing educational eBooks. If you read both and discover that they each share a number of word-for-word identical paragraphs, would you feel ripped off? I have seen this happen and I can tell you that customers will rarely consult one or both of the authors’ “expert” advice again. The bottom line for this case is to always site your source. You can do it either inline, in a footnote or a bibliography. It adds credibility. It also shows your reader that you did your research so the information you delivered to them would be correct.

A lot of times you will hear people refer to something called “Fair Use”. What is Fair Use? Fair use is defined in sections 107 through 118 of the US Copyright Law (title 17, U.S. Code). Looking at that code, we find:

The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law. Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission. Citing sources generally prevents accusations of plagiarism, but is not a sufficient defense against copyright violations.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use:

  • Quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment;
  • Quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations;
  • Use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied;
  • Summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report;
  • Reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy;
  • Reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson;
  • Reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports;
  • Incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.

Copyright protects the particular way an author has expressed himself. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in the work. The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

Going back to the eBook example, I would consider it educational use (remember, I am not a lawyer) to quote something from another eBook as long as it highlighted or contradicted my point. I would not consider it fair use to make their words the primary source of information in my eBook.

The same goes for your website. If you find an article that speaks to the exact point you are trying to convey on your website, always ask the copyright holder if you can post it on your site. If that’s not possible, you will need to continue your research and end up writing something original, in your own words. Remember, if you start with copyrighted material and create something based on it, even if it’s not readily identifiable as the original, it is still considered creating a “derivative work” and still violates the author’s copyright.

Images are the same. If you find an image that you like on some other website, even if it’s a button and not a photo, you shouldn’t just copy it for use on your site.

In the next post, we will look at other circumstances that allow you to use other people’s works on your website.

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