In late October, I had the opportunity to attend the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference in Lewisburg, Pa. The idea of digital scholarship has of late been a strong and consistent trend in academia, with libraries providing key support; here at Connecticut College, the creation of the Digital Scholarship & Curriculum Center and the hiring of a librarian focused on digital scholarship have been emblematic of this development.

At the conference, there were several presentations, from institutions that included Bucknell, Lafayette and Gettysburg, that featured undergraduate students who had worked on digital projects of various kinds. One thing that several student presenters discussed, I thought, deserved special mention: the complications that can arise when making student work public by publishing it on the web, particularly regarding copyright.

In the existing paradigmatic model of undergraduate scholarship, students write papers that are read by a single professor, and then discarded or archived by the student as he or she desires. Copyright claims don’t apply to this model, because what the student writes is entirely written and consumed within a very limited educational context. Per Chapter One, Section 110 of the U.S. Copyright Code, “the performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution” cannot be an infringement of copyright. (Fair Use, which outlines certain rights held by users regardless of context, may also apply; the TEACH Act, signed into law in 2002, extends Section 110 protections to online and distance-education activities.)

But at the Bucknell Conference, students described work that would not necessarily apply under any of these copyright protections. This work, created to be displayed on online publishing platforms such as Omeka, WordPress or Scalar, is increasingly available for public consumption, and this raises possible copyright issues for works and images that are incorporated into these projects. We’ve seen this trend here at Connecticut College too; for example, students from a history class digitized and displayed pages from a journal of a Connecticut man who sailed to China; another class digitized images from 19th-century Japanese books. (You can look at these exhibits here, or read more about those classes in the online version of the fall 2015 edition of Inside Information.)

In the latter examples, the digitized journal entries and images were in the public domain, and not subject to copyright claims. But if one is publishing a copyrighted work, it often can fall outside of the parameters of Fair Use and require permission, particularly if the use of the image is illustrative and not part of the analysis.

And so going forward, student research that’s presented in public will have to take such things into account, and students, librarians and faculty alike will find themselves needing to consider copyright as part and parcel of their research process. Here is a quick overview of the questions that need to be asked when doing this research, although I hasten to add that more could be said about each one of these items (and we hope to do exactly that in upcoming posts to this blog).

  1. Is it copyrighted? Works published before 1923 are firmly in the public domain and not subject to copyright, but for many works, it’s much more complicated. One needs to ask whether the work was actually published, whether the author is still alive (or when he or she died), and whether there was a copyright notice, among other factors. It’s a lot to sift through, so I suggest using this website from Cornell’s Copyright Information Center to help you decide.
  2. Does it fall under Fair Use? Fair Use is a protection afforded to those wishing to use or transform a copyrighted work in certain legally prescribed ways. When deciding whether Fair Use applies, courts weigh four factors: the nature of the use of the work; the nature of the work (e.g., whether it is artistic or factual); the amount and substance of the work used; and the effect of the use on the marketplace. You can read more about Fair Use here, on a page provided by Stanford University Libraries. For specific information about Fair Use and visual works, check out this page from the College Art Association.
  3. How do I get permission? While the specifics can get complicated, basically you need to 1) figure out who owns the copyright, and 2) ask them for permission. For works found on the web, see if there’s a way to contact the site owner and ask. (Brown University Library has a page with some helpful hints for this process.) For those not found on the web, some additional research may be involved. I suggest asking a librarian to ease frustration.
  4. How do I find images or other works that are not copyrighted? One great way to do this is to search for images published to the web under a Creative Commons license, which signify to a potential user that the image can be reused. This Creative Commons Search page allows you to look for works that can be used for commercial purposes; modified or adapted; or both. From here, you can search within such popular sites as Flickr and Google Images.

Here at Connecticut College, we have a very handy guide on copyright that covers all of the above; I heartily suggest referring to it when you have a question. You can also find a great list of resources at this page from Brown University Library.

— Fred Folmer

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