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Citing Others' Work

Intellectual Property

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Intellectual Property is a legal concept that is: 

  • Designed to provide limited protection for processes, inventions, brands and expressions.
  • Intended to strike a balance between the public good and incentives for individuals to create stuff.
  • NOT intended to protect ideas themselves. For example:
    • You can patent an innovative design for a sleeping bag, but not the idea of sleeping in an insulated bag.
    • J.R.R. Tolkien was entitled to copyright protection for the Lord of the Rings trilogy once he wrote it down, but he could not have copyrighted the idea of four hobbits on a mission to destroy a ring in a volcano.

Once these protections expire, the intellectual property they once secured enters the public domain, meaning it can be freely used by anyone.

Creative Commons

Most people agree that creators should be entitled to some type of protection over their creative works. That said, there is fierce debate about what form that protection should take, and how long it should last. This debate has given rise to several proposals for alternative systems of safeguarding intellectual property. 

One of the most prominent proposed alternatives is called Creative Commons licensing.

Creative Commons logo

The core idea behind Creative Commons licensing is that it allows creators to use our current legal system to give universal permission for certain uses of their work that would otherwise infringe copyright. It has a lot in common with the ideology behind the 'open source' movement. Advocates of Creative Commons licensing usually believe that culture should be more open, shareable, collaborative, and available for remixing. 

Because Creative Commons exists within our existing legal framework, creators must 'opt in' to place CC licenses on their work, unlike copyright, which is automatically granted upon a work's creation. 

There are several types of Creative Commons licenses. The most extreme is a Public Domain license, which is basically a forfeit of copyright protection. Less extreme licenses allow creators to permit use of their work for noncommercial purposes only, or to permit all use of their work on the condition that it is not altered, or that they are given credit for it. See the video below for more information on Creative Commons licensing.

What is 'Fair Use'?

Title 17 Section 107 of the United States Code establishes protections for "fair use" of copyrighted material,

"for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a 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; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."


What does all this legalese mean, exactly?

Essentially, it means that copyright protection isn't total - there are some important cases in which it is acceptable to use portions of a copyrighted work for specific purposes including education, criticism, commentary, news reporting, and parody. 

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as saying, "This is an educational use, so it must be fair use." Fair use also takes into account the amount or extent of the work being used and the impact on the market for the original work.

So if you were to copy an entire textbook and give the copies away to any NMC student who wanted it, that would likely not be considered fair use. Even though you wouldn't be profiting from the endeavor, and it could be seen as an educational use, you'd be using the entirety of the original work and creating a clear negative impact on the market for the textbook (anyone you gave the book to would be one less potential buyer for the author's work).

All four of the numbered factors laid out in Section 107 are weighed in any question of Fair Use, so it's important to consider each of them when making a decision about how to use copyrighted material. To learn more about fair use, see the links below or contact one of your NMC librarians.