For folks working in scholarly communications, there are any number of challenges that must be faced on an almost daily basis.  For example, it is a given that everyone in this field has spent at least a few hours refining their two sentence or less stock description of fair use for non-lawyers.  Yet there is one issue that underlies and affects almost every other issue handled by scholarly communications staff:  getting people to care about copyright.

The Problem

Copyrighted materials – and thus the potential for copyright infringement – are almost unavoidable in the modern internet age.  Automatic copyright (no formalities required), the ability to easily copy, and a low bar for originality (see, e.g., Feist) combine to give some folks the sense that copyright is not a big deal.  Because copyrighted materials are everywhere, many folks are technically infringing on copyright on a daily basis.  Who hasn’t reposted a meme on Facebook?  Who hasn’t saved an image from the internet to their computer?  Who (as a teen in the ‘90s) didn’t rip CDs to their computer instead of buying albums?  While that last question may date the author of this post a bit, it doesn’t change the fact that copyrighted content is everywhere, and instances of copyright infringement are almost as prevalent.

When we, as scholarly communications experts, tell our colleagues, patrons, students, and everyone else that copyright infringement is wrong and they ought to do their best to avoid it, they may question why they should waste their time.  Based on what we tell them, every article they post online could be copyright infringement.  Even when they properly cite something, it could still be copyright infringement.  How can they give their time to caring about something so ubiquitous?  Won’t it eat their days and steal their nights? Isn’t their time better spent elsewhere?

Response #1 – Think of the Kids Students

Working in higher education, it is often helpful to remind others that the reason we’re all here is the students.  Viewed through a teaching lens, it is important to make copyright a priority so that we can create appropriate models for our students to follow.  Most folks provide citations for sources in their work, and this serves both to prevent claims of academic dishonesty and also to model for students the best way to write.  The same can be done with copyright.  Be the model you want students to follow.  This isn’t prioritizing copyright; it’s prioritizing education and ensuring that students have the best possible examples for their academic careers.

Response #2 – The Golden Rule

Copyright may not seem worth the time when it’s applied to another’s work, but turn that around and look at copyright from the perspective of an author.  Some folks may not give a moment’s thought to reusing a few of a colleague’s class slides, but they may get upset if someone else did the same to them.  Remind folks that, if they wish to have their own works respected, they should first learn to respect the works of others.

Response #3 – People Will Know

While a lawsuit may not be a guaranteed result of a lack of copyright concern, people will still notice.  If professional reputation is important (and in what field is it not?), then paying attention to copyright can help protect one’s professional reputation.  Even with proper citation, overuse or misuse of others’ materials can make even the most novel scholarship and work product feel worn out and overplayed.  Using others’ materials only when necessary and appropriate – such as for intensive commentary or critique, or when directly related to one’s teaching – not only improves scholarship, but can also bolster a fair use defense, and possibly eliminate copyright concerns at the start!

Is This Worth The Effort?

It may sometimes be tempting to, metaphorically at least, throw your hands in the air and abandon efforts to improve copyright education.  The lack of concern is not only a professional toll, but also an emotional one.  When a large percentage of the people you interact with don’t know your subject area exists, and may be disinterested when they find out it does, it can be difficult to manage.

Just remember that people love to talk, and every person you tell about copyright will likely tell at least one other person, who will tell someone else, and they will tell still another person.  Your efforts can create a wave of change that brings us to a tipping point, where copyright is closer to the top of most priority lists.

Have you had these challenging conversations about why copyright matters?  What strategies or tips do you have to share?  Let us know in the comments!


By Marley C. Nelson, Rights Management Specialist, Copyright Services, The Ohio State University Libraries