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Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century
Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century

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3.3 Copyright

One of the reasons the Web has grown so quickly, and one of its most fascinating aspects, is that almost anyone can publish almost anything on it. It is very easy to find information, images, audio and video files on the Web, which you can then save and incorporate into your own material.

Copying is so easy that people often make the mistake of assuming that everything on the Web is freely available. This is not the case: most information you will come across is likely to be covered by copyright law. This applies not only to online television programmes, music, photographs, books and so on, but also to information – for example, in the form of online academic papers or simply in someone’s blog.

Material not subject to copyright is said to belong in the public domain and can be used by anyone. Older works of art and literature, such as the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, are in the public domain. However, individual printings, adaptations or recordings of those works are copyrighted to the publisher or performer. The situation can become very complicated because the duration and extent of copyright differs between countries. For example, material may be in the public domain in the USA but still under copyright in the UK. As a result, it is always wise to assume that any third-party material (that is, material originating from someone else) is still protected by copyright unless you’re sure it’s in the public domain.

Copyright holders can prosecute individuals and organisations for infringing their rights; in recent years, music and film companies have sued individuals for very large sums of money. Below are some general points you should bear in mind.

  • You should seek the author’s permission if you wish to use any copyrighted material. Just because something is on the Web does not mean it is freely available for you to use.
  • Many websites have usage policies explaining how their material can be used. Some are more restrictive than others, so make sure you find and follow the relevant policies.
  • Information published online may have been put there by someone who is not the copyright holder.
  • When quoting text in your own academic work (other than in assignment answers – see below), the generally accepted guideline from copyright legislation is that you can use a whole chapter or up to 5% of any one book without seeking permission, but you must give a full reference to show where it has come from.

This may all seem rather intimidating, but it’s not quite as bad as you might fear – fortunately, copyright law makes some concessions to students. As a result, you don’t have to ask permission to use copyrighted material in answering an assignment question, although you must still include references. However, if you want to reuse the same material for any other purpose at a later date, normal copyright law applies and you must seek permission.