Copyright law can be both the friend and foe of the student media. While the law protects student journalists against the unauthorized use of their stories, drawings or photographs, it also limits their ability to reproduce the works of others. The following guide, which explains the basics of copyright law, should provide student journalists with most of what they need to know to both safeguard and exercise their rights.
Copyright is a set of federal laws, stemming from Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, of the U.S. Constitution, which grant authors and artists the exclusive right to benefit from their creations.
The basics of copyright are fairly straightforward. A copyright is a property right. A person owns a copyright in much the same way he owns a car. Just as it is against the law to use or borrow someone else's car without the owner's permission, it is generally against the law to use someone's copyrighted work without first obtaining her consent. Additionally, just as no one but the automobile owner can legally sell, give away or change the appearance of a car, no one but the copyright owner, with a few exceptions, may legally transfer or alter a copyrighted work.
Copyright law encourages and rewards the creativity of authors and artists. If, for example, members of the public (or a movie studio) could freely copy the novel Interview With the Vampire without compensating or obtaining permission from author Anne Rice, she and other authors would likely be unwilling to invest the time, energy and resources necessary to create books in the first place. Copyright, therefore, ensures a robust collection of original works available for public enjoyment and benefit, which is its main goal.
Copyright is just one means of providing legal protection for creative works. Patent law protects inventions. Trademark law protects the symbols and slogans that identify businesses to their consumers. Together with copyright, these two comprise the area of the law known as intellectual property.
Patent law issues should cause little or no problem for the student media. You do not, for example, violate a patent by publishing information about a new invention or explaining -- even in very specific detail -- how something works.
Likewise, trademark law presents relatively few concerns for the student media. While copyright protects a creator's rights, trademark law should be viewed more as a protection for consumers. Trademarks -- for example, the Nike "Swoosh" symbol, the brand name "Coke" or the yellow Kodak film box -- and service marks -- for example, the "Golden Arches" used to identify a McDonald's restaurant -- are unique symbols, names or other "marks" that companies use and consumers rely upon to distinguish one product or service from another. Trademark law is generally only a problem when a trademark or service mark is used in a way that would confuse a potential consumer. For example, it would be a trademark violation for the El Cheapo Shoe Company to start putting a "Swoosh" symbol on its tennis shoes. If this were allowed, buyers might purchase El Cheapo's tennis shoes thinking they were actually Nike brand tennis shoes, which clearly would not be fair to either the consumer or Nike. If, on the other hand, there is no likelihood that a consumer would be confused by the use of a trademark, there is generally no violation. That's why, for example, there would be no problem in a student yearbook publishing a photograph of a pair of Nike shoes (complete with the "Swoosh") to illustrate a feature story on popular footwear worn by students. There is, obviously, no likelihood that a consumer would pick up the yearbook thinking it was a Nike shoe -- or, if published in the context of a "regular" news story, even an official Nike publication.
Note, however, that some works are protected by both trademark and copyright (and maybe even patent) law at the same time and you will need to analyze your intended use under each. If the editor above wanted to use a flashy Nike ad simply to "decorate" an inside page (and not as part of a legitimate news story), the outcome would be different. Again, there would be no trademark problem. A student yearbook and athletic shoes are so different that no consumer would be confused by the use. However, the ad is also copyrighted and its unauthorized use will be prohibited unless the editor demonstrates a "fair use," which is unlikely here since the advertisement is being used as simply a page design graphic rather than to illustrate an actual news story (for more information on "fair use," see the discussion the below).
There are only two instances in which trademark protections typically concern the student media. Unfortunately, a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but they are worth keeping in mind. The first issue arises when a student media attempts to use a name already in use by a competing media or entity, or vice versa. For example, a new independent student publication wishing to call itself The Independent Daily Student may have a trademark problem if the existing official student publication is already called The Daily Student. The Daily Student would argue, and probably rightly so, that both its readers and advertisers could be confused by the name of the competing publication. Recently, interesting questions regarding the use of domain names to identify companies or other entities conducting business on the Internet, including on-line media, have started to surface.
A second -- and potentially more troublesome -- branch of trademark law for the student media is that of trademark dilution. Trademark dilution statutes generally prevent the use of a mark by a non-owner if such use would whittle away at the distinctiveness of or otherwise "tarnish" an existing mark. Unlike traditional trademark infringement claims, it is not necessary that the owner show a likelihood of confusion. For example, the Coca-Cola Company was successful in preventing a T-shirt maker from printing shirts with the slogan: "Enjoy Cocaine," in the well-known Coke script and typeface. Clearly, no reasonable person would have thought they were purchasing a shirt made by the Coca-Cola Company. Rather, the court found that the T-shirt slogan tarnished the reputation of the famous Coke trademark. While most state statutes and the new federal Trademark Dilution Act do not allow prosecution in cases involving news commentary and news reporting, the protections for other uses (such as a parody) are not yet certain.
Plagiarism is not a legal term. It is a term for an academic crime, usually defined by professional or academic bodies. Simply stated, a plagiarist is a person who poses as the creator of words, ideas or methods that are not his own. In contrast, a person infringes on another's copyright when he makes unauthorized use of material that is protected by copyright. For example, a person could plagiarize Shakespeare's works by not giving the Bard proper credit. He would not, however, be guilty of copyright infringement because all of Shakespeare's works, now about 400 years old, are in the public domain and cannot be protected by copyright. You will not be punished by a court of law if you are found guilty of plagiarizing someone else's work, but you might be subject to punishment or censure by your publication staff. And you should certainly be embarrassed.
Copyright protects literary works, sound recordings, works of art, musical compositions, computer programs and architectural works, provided that the work satisfies certain requirements.
First, the work must be original. This means that the author must have shown at least a small spark of creativity when she made the work. For example, courts have said that simply arranging listings in a telephone book alphabetically according to the last name of the phone service subscriber lacks the creativity necessary to qualify for a copyright.
Second, the work must be "fixed in any tangible medium of expression." This "fixation" requirement means that only works preserved in a tangible form (a book, a newspaper, a video, a CD-ROM disk, etc.) -- as opposed to those existing entirely in an artist's mind -- will receive copyright protection.
Copyright does not extend to some forms of expression, even though they are arguably original and fixed. Slogans, titles, names, words and short phrases, instructions, lists of ingredients and familiar symbols or designs are generally ineligible for copyright because they lack the necessary originality and creativity necessary to distinguish them from the ideas they represent. For example, the words in Nike's slogan "Just Do It" cannot be copyrighted and therefore could be used as a headline or tag to illustrate a photo collage of school athletes in a high school yearbook. The actual slogan (words in special typeface with "Swoosh" logo) probably cannot be used -- barring permission or a "fair use" argument -- because unlike the three "bare" words, the design of the ad is sufficiently creative and can be copyrighted.
Copyright law also recognizes a distinction between "expression" and "ideas." Only creative expression, and not mere ideas or facts, qualifies for copyright protection. So while Time magazine will have a copyright in the exact words and arrangement of an article on teen drug use, the facts discovered in Time's reporting belong to no one and can therefore be used as a source for other reporters. Additionally, ideas, thoughts or scientific research are not -- by themselves -- subject to copyright protection, though the description of such ideas, thoughts or research may be.
Generally, the creator of a work owns the copyright. However, under the "work for hire" exception, an employer owns the copyright of works created by her employees while working in the scope of their employment. The issue of who is an employee is particularly significant for the student media where the traditional employee-employer relationship may not exist.
As just mentioned, if you are an employee, your employer generally owns the copyright of all works you create on the job. This grants your employer the right to do pretty much whatever it wants with your work and prohibits you from doing the same. On the other hand, if you are what is known as an "independent contractor," you -- and not the employer -- own the copyright for your creations. In such cases, the employer may generally use your work only once, and you control all subsequent uses.
While there are no reported cases involving student journalists, the U.S. Supreme Court in Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid provided a list of factors to be considered in determining if someone is an employee or an independent contractor, including:
None of these factors alone is determinative in the analysis. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, they would seem to require a fairly formal and traditional employer-employee relationship, something which is arguably missing in most student media situations where students often volunteer their time and services. When students are paid, it is often on a per photo/story/issue basis, much like a freelancer, which would suggest treatment as an independent contractor.
Nevertheless, the surest way to determine if one is an independent contractor or an employee of a student newspaper, yearbook or other "collective work" is to anticipate the issue in advance. Before starting work, both parties should establish the nature of their relationship and put their agreement in writing. Regardless of the above factors, an agreement specifying that one party is the copyright owner of certain works would determine the outcome of most controversies that arise. In some cases, however, it will be impossible to characterize a work as a "work for hire," and a statement in which the creator assigns his or her rights to the publication will be necessary, if this is what the parties intend. Every student publication should have a written agreement signed by each student staff member spelling out who owns the copyright to the works created.
A copyright gives its owner five exclusive rights: reproduction, adaptation, distribution, public performance and public display. The popular song "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette can illustrate these rights.
"You Oughta Know" is the subject of at least three copyrights: one for the lyrics and musical arrangement, one for the actual sound recording and one for the art used to illustrate the package of the CD. Assuming that Alanis Morissette owns each of these copyrights (although she has probably transferred rights to her record company), she is the only person who can legally exercise any of copyright's exclusive rights. For example, no one but Alanis Morissette can dub copies of the original sound recording for profit. (Note, though, a provision of copyright law unique to sound recordings does allow someone to make and distribute their own version of an original song without the copyright owner's permission, as long as they pay the owner a fee.) Only Morissette can legally sell copies of the CD or reprint the song's lyrics on promotional merchandise or sheet music. And Morissette is the only person who legally could display the art from the CD package in public.
Copyright owners like Morissette can, in addition, sell or grant permission to others to use their works. Therefore, someone other than Morissette could legally reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform or publicly display "You Oughta Know" as long as she had Morissette's permission.
A formal copyright notice includes the copyright character "©," the creation date and the name of the copyright owner. For example, © 2010 Student Press Law Center. Where notice is required, this notice must appear on all copies of a copyrighted work. For works created after March 1, 1989, notice is not required to claim copyright. Works produced after this date are automatically copyrighted from the moment they are created. Regardless, it is a good "non-legal" idea to include a copyright notice if for no other reason than as a courtesy to users who may wish to contact the copyright owner. For works created before Jan. 1, 1978, a copyright notice was mandatory. Notice was also mandatory, with a few exceptions, for works created between Jan. 1, 1978, and March 1, 1989.
Registration of creative works with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C., is voluntary. Nonetheless, registering a copyrighted work and obtaining a certificate of registration can be advantageous to the copyright owner. First, registration is the key to the courthouse door. Only a copyright owner who has registered her work with the Copyright Office may sue someone who infringes her copyright. Additionally, while you have the right to register your work at any time while your copyright is in effect, certain damages and reimbursement for your attorney fees are only available to those who formally register their work within three months of publication. Registration is easy. It requires completing relatively straightforward forms for the Copyright Office, mailing them copies of your work and paying a fee ($20 as of 8/1/97). Attorneys or other specialists are not required. Special registration requirements are available for serial publications (newspapers, weekly magazines, etc.) that make registration cheaper and easier to accomplish.
The final copyright formality is deposit. Creators must deposit two copies of their work with the Copyright Office within three months of publication. These deposits help form the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. While copyright law mandates deposit, failure to send in the required copies of your work will not affect the validity of your copyright. If you plan to register your copyright later, you can request a receipt for your deposit so you do not have to include more copies of your work with your registration application.
Questions about any aspect of copyright registration or deposit can be directed to an information specialist at the U.S. Copyright Office at (202) 707-5959 or by visiting the U.S. Copyright Office's website.
Calculating the duration of copyright protection can be a complicated task. It can also be very important because once copyright expires, the work becomes part of the public domain and can be freely used without permission from the former copyright owner. For example, film producers in Hollywood could create a script and movie of Nathaniel Hawthorne's book The Scarlet Letter with no legal liability for copyright infringement because the novel -- like any work originally published before Jan. 1, 1923 -- is now in the public domain. For works created before Jan. 1, 1978, copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. The copyright for works for hire created after that date extends for either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes sooner. Copyright always expires on Dec. 31 of the appropriate year.
For more information on a specific work, be sure to check out our Copyright Duration Calculator.
Copyright owners who have complied with the requisite formalities may sue for copyright infringement if someone has exercised one of the copyright owner's exclusive rights without permission or in a manner that would not be considered a fair use. If the copyright owner prevails in the action, the court may award her either actual or statutory damages, as well as injunctive relief and impoundment of copyrighted material.
Actual damages are the measure of the actual amount of money lost by the copyright owner due to the unauthorized use plus any profits made by the infringer that are not included in the first computation. These are calculated using evidence provided by the copyright owner.
Statutory damages range from $200 to $100,000 per infringement depending, in part, on whether the infringement was "innocent" or "willful." The actual amount awarded by the court is in the discretion of the judge. Copyright owners may choose whichever damages are greater when they prevail in a copyright infringement.
Injunctive relief, which is normally a court order to stop violating a copyright, and impoundment, the court-ordered confiscation of copyrighted material and the machinery or tools used to create it, are also common remedies.
The surest way to use a copyrighted work legitimately is to get permission from the copyright holder. Simply giving the copyright owner credit for their work is not enough. Explicit permission is required. Sometimes that is not difficult. For example, a daily commercial newspaper would probably agree to allow a nearby high school student yearbook to reprint a photo of a local news event, as long as the students gave credit to their source. On the other hand, getting permission can sometimes pose a challenge. Many organizations have strict policies regulating the use of their copyrighted work, from barring permission altogether to detailed, time-consuming procedures by which permission must be secured to charging expensive licensing fees. Video yearbooks and other non-print media will often find that obtaining permission to use popular music or films can be an especially trying experience. You may want to limit your use of these items to what would be considered a "fair use," (for example, to accompany your official survey of the five most popular music videos at your high school, you could probably run a very short clip of each) or you may want to contact a company that specializes in obtaining copyright permissions.
If you think it will be necessary to obtain a copyright, start early. While the time required varies, you should allow yourself months, rather than days or even weeks, to secure a copyright permission.
The first step is to locate the copyright holder, either by using the copyright notice (for example, © 1996 Time Magazine, Inc.) or by contacting the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. You can search their copyright registration records yourself on the Internet, or you can pay them to do the search for you.
Once you know who owns the copyright, you need to ask that person for permission. While it is probably worth an initial telephone call, particularly at a smaller or less formal organization, most copyright holders require a written request. Your request should include:
This is a very important exception to the general rule that copyrighted material cannot be used without consent. It is particularly significant to the news media, which is in the business of conveying information, some of it based on copyrighted work.
Federal copyright law states that an individual other than the copyright owner can use a copyrighted work without permission if the use would be considered a "fair use." The Fair Use Doctrine is, in effect, a compromise. It represents a balance by lawmakers of the need to encourage scientific and cultural progress by making sure creators get credit for what they do against society's need for readily accessible information. Recognizing the inherent conflict in these two goals, fair use strives to find a reasonable middle ground.
Whether or not the use of a copyrighted work by a non-owner would be considered a "fair use" is not always an easy call. There is no black and white rule; each case must be examined on its own. Indeed, it is this lack of a hard and fast standard that has lead some to label fair use "the metaphysics of law." Nevertheless, as one of the country's leading experts on copyright law has said: "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred a scholar who wants to quote a reasonable portion of a copyrighted work can do so without obtaining permission as long as the quotation does not constitute a substitute for the original."
Courts look at four factors to determine if the use of a copyrighted work is a fair use:
Fair use therefore authorizes the use of limited amounts of copyrighted works for purposes like news reporting and education so long as the use does not destroy the commercial value of the copyrighted work. Thus, a student newspaper can probably reproduce a single photograph -- particularly one that is reduced in size from the original -- from the package art from the "You Oughta Know" CD to illustrate a review of the CD without obtaining Alanis Morissette's (or her record company's) permission. Other fair uses probably include: use of a single frame from a comic strip to illustrate a news article reporting the retirement of the strip's creator; reprinting a Joe Camel advertisement taken from a national magazine to illustrate a story on the effect of cigarette advertising on minors; reprinting two lines from the senior class song as part of a yearbook editor's "The Year Gone By" column. But using an entire comic strip or Joe Camel advertisement on senior class T-shirts or printing all the lyrics from the senior class song on the inside cover of the yearbook will probably not be fair uses.
Fortunately for the student media, copyright law gives parodies and spoofs a fair share of breathing room. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that the use of copyrighted material in parodies or spoofs can constitute a fair use if the use satisfies certain conditions. First, the parody must be obvious. The audience must reasonably perceive that the use is a criticism or commentary of the original. A disclaimer or notice that clearly alerts readers of the parody may prove useful. Second, the use must reproduce no more of the work than the minimum necessary to conjure up the original in the audience's mind. For example, a slight change in the appearance of a cartoon character will be insufficient to satisfy fair use. Finally, the use must not destroy the market of the original work. If the public will buy the use instead of buying the original or a parody of the original created by the copyright owner, then the use is not fair. So, for example, an artist's rendition of an otherwise exact copy of Beavis and Butthead talking about rock videos that only altered their hair color or clothing would not qualify as a parody but a drawing of two teenage boys who vaguely resemble Beavis and Butthead giggling about school events probably would.
The basics of copyright law are not difficult to understand, particularly when you understand the reasoning behind the law. While this short guide will not provide you with all of the answers you need, it should at least alert you as to the questions you must ask.
For those needing additional help, the Student Press Law Center provides free legal information to student journalists and their advisers on copyright and other issues. Please contact us.
You may also want to visit the U.S. Copyright Office website. A particularly helpful publication is "Circular 1: Copyright Basics," which is available online.
Another excellent source of copyright information for students and educators is the Crash Course in Copyright maintained by the University of Texas System. Their comprehensive Offsite Links Page is particularly good.
1 17 U.S.C. §§ 101-1101.
2 See, e.g., Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 114 S. Ct. 1164, 1169 (1994).
3 Approximately 25 states currently have Anti-Dilution statutes on the books. Understanding Basic Trademark Law (1996), Practising Law Institute, at 249. The federal Trademark Dilution Act, passed in January 1996, can be found at 15 U.S.C. §1127.
4 Coca-Cola Co. v. Gemini Rising, Inc., 346 F. Supp. 1183 (E.D.N.Y. 1972). See also, Chemical Corp. v Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 306 F.2d 433 (5th Cir. 1962), cert. denied, 372 U.S. 965 (1963)("Where there's life...there's Bugs"); Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Inc. v. Pussycat Cinema, Ltd., 604 F.2d 200 (2d Cir. 1979)(use of uniforms nearly identical to Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in pornographic film "Debbie Does Dallas"); Pillsbury Co. v Milky Way Products, Inc., 215 U.S.P.Q. 124 (depiction of Pillsbury's Poppin' Fresh doughboy performing various sexual acts). But see, L.L. Bean, Inc. v. Drake Publishers, Inc., 811 F.2d 26 (1st Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 483 U.S. 1013 (1987)(court refused to apply Maine's antidilution statute to the publication of a parody of L.L. Bean's mail order catalogue in sexually oriented magazine.)
5 For more information on plagiarism, see, Hiestand, M., Special Report: Plagiarism, Student Press Review (Summer/Fall 1994), at 24.
6 17 U.S.C. § 102.
7 17 U.S.C. § 102(a).
8 Feist Publications Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340 (1991).
9 17 U.S.C. § 102(a).
10 Circular 1 (Copyright Basics)(June 1995), U.S. Copyright Office, at page 3.
11 17 U.S.C. § 102(b).
12 See, e.g., Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publishing, Inc., 111 F.2d 432 (2d Cir. 1940)(while an author may copyright a superhuman character from another planet who lives among human disguised as a newspaper reporter, dons blue tights emblazoned with a gold "S" and saves the world from injustice using his powers of strength and flight, he may not copyright "the mere character of a 'Superman' who is a blessing to mankind.").
13 17 U.S.C. § 201.
15 490 U.S. 730, 751-52 (1989).
17 See, e.g., Marco v. Accent Publishing Co., Inc., 969 F.2d 1547 (3rd Cir. 1992)(freelance photographer for magazine classified as independent contractor where evidence showed he used his own equipment, paid his own taxes, supplied his own studio, did not receive employee benefits and was paid by the job); Schiller & Schmidt, Inc. v. Nordisco Corp., 969 F.2d 410, 412 (7th Cir. 1992)("no one could suppose...that [freelance photographer] was an employee...." where specific statement to that effect was not signed prior to work being performed.)
18 17 U.S.C. § 106. Sections 107 through 120 contain exceptions to these rights.
19 17 U.S.C. §§ 401-406.
20 17 U.S.C. § 408-412.
21 17 U.S.C. § 407.
22 17 U.S.C. § 412.
23 Forms may be obtained by calling (202)707-9100.
24 The address to which materials should be sent for deposit is Register of Copyrights, Att: 407 Deposits, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559-6000.
25 17 U.S.C. § 504(b).
26 17 U.S.C. § 504(c).
27 A number of interesting copyright permission horror tales are related in David W. Stone's useful and entertaining article, Just Do It: How to Beat the Copyright Racket, Lingua Franca (Nov./Dec. 1995), at 32.
28 The Copyright Office's World Wide Web URL is http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright. You must have either Telnet or TN3270 software to access the records. The Telnet address is locis.loc.gov. The Gopher address is marvel.loc.gov.
29 17 U.S.C. § 107.
30 L. Ray Patterson (Brock Professor of Law at the University of Georgia), cited by Stowe, D., Just Do It: How to Beat the Copyright Racket, Lingua Franca (Nov./Dec. 1995), at 38.
32 Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 566 (1985).
33 Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 114 S. Ct. 1164 (1994).
34 Id. at 1173.
35 Id. at 1176.
36 Id. at 1177.