15 Copyright Rules Every Student Should Know

You might think that liberal arts students are the only ones who need to understand copyright law, but future photographers, animators, writers, and artists are actually the ones who might be suing students one day. As students rush to complete assignments, one of the last things on their minds is copyright law. The temptation to pluck resources from just about anywhere is often too great for some students, and others are simply unaware that rules and regulations protecting the use of art and content even exist. But the fact is that these rules do exist, and regardless of knowledge, students are expected to play by these rules. We’ve highlighted 15 copyright rules that are the most important to students, and also the most often ones misunderstood.

  1. Fair use This is a big one for students, and we’ll hit on more details further, but first, you must know the basics of fair use for students. Copyrighted work, when used for educational purposes, is not subject to the usual copyright laws. Any educational use that takes copyrighted work used for parody, reporting, criticism, commentary, and research applies here. Of course, this use assumes that you’re merely sampling, and not using a copyrighted work in its entirety to make up your own work. You should also be careful to acquire the content legally, as in, not downloading it illegally. If you’re not sure your project qualifies under fair use, this checklist from Columbia University is a great resource to use.
  2. Copyright is automatic We so often see the little copyright symbol © that it’s easy to assume that if it’s not there, the work isn’t copyrighted. But that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everything that’s created, whether it’s music or a blog post, is copyright protected and is owned by the artist that created it. Copyright protection is granted to works whether they’re registered or not, so that means the moment a photographer hits the shutter, their image is protected by copyright. Often, artists will remind consumers of this protection with the little ©, as well as registration, but the absence of this reminder should never be meant as a message that the work is up for grabs.
  3. Copyright lasts for a specific amount of time Public domain works exist because the timeline of copyright protection for those pieces has run out, or the author has forfeited property rights. But it does take quite some time to get to that point. For most works, copyright protection applies for the entirety of the author’s life, plus 70 years thereafter. In other words, the chances of your favorite new release becoming public domain in your own lifetime are slim to none. Of course, that means that classic works, especially classic novels, concerts, and artwork, are freely available for consumption and distribution in educational ventures and beyond.
  4. Federal government works are not protected by copyright Government materials are not protected by copyright, and fall under the part of public domain. This applies to works created by employees of the federal government as part of their job. This includes many of the materials presented in the Library of Congress American Memory project.
  5. You can sample from DVDs, even circumventing copyright protection Within the last two years, a big change in video use has popped up, and it works in great favor for students. When creating noncommercial, educational videos for criticism or classroom purposes, you can legally engage in “ripping” DVDs, an action that for many years has been considered illegal. The specific exemption shares a surprisingly simple explanation: “in order to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment, and where the person engaging in circumvention believes and has reasonable grounds for believing that circumvention is necessary.” In other words, rip DVDs with wild abandon, but just be sure you’re using them as small clips for educational, noncommercial uses.
  6. How much is too much? Fair use is a great tool for students, but it’s so important that you work within its limits. When reproducing copyrighted material, there are certain guidelines you should follow in order to avoid crossing the line from “sampling” to “stealing.” In general, written work samples can be about 250 words long, where in each book or magazine, one chart, photo, or cartoon is within the limit. Selections from visual artists should be limited to five works, or a total of 10% of a collection. Three minutes of video works can appear in student presentations, and 30 seconds of musical works can be sampled per composition.
  7. Always check for guidelines on use Although students are granted a fairly broad use of copyrighted content, it’s always important to check out use guidelines before diving in. When using online information, always remember to not only credit your source, but do some cursory research to find out how the author of a work wants to be credited. Often, major content creators, like photographers on Flickr, will have explicit guidelines for use and may even require that you ask for permission before using their works.
  8. If your project becomes commercial, you no longer have protection as a student Let’s say you take on a video project as an undergrad. If it’s for a specific course, you’re covered, but if you decide that your work is so awesome that you’d like to take it out of an educational context and begin to market it commercially, you’re going to have to revise your copyrighted content strategy. Video samples that were once legal to use as part of a student project are now subject to copyright laws, and you’ll have to get permission for their use. Often, you will have to pay for them, or face the potential for lawsuits.
  9. If your project reaches a wider audience, you’re not protected either Fair use applies when projects are distributed on a small, educational scale. But if your project is available for consumption on, say, an unsecured website where anyone can access it (and even share or download it), your use is no longer exempt under fair use.
  10. The Internet is not public domain A common misconception that many students run into is the idea that anything they can find online is free, or in fancier terms, in the public domain. While there are certainly plenty of public domain works available online (including those that are especially helpful to students, like books on Project Gutenberg), it’s simply not the case for the entirety of the Internet. Writers may post samples of their latest books, photographers share teasers of their upcoming gallery project, and musicians even share singles, but that does not mean they’ve released these works into the public domain to be used without regard to copyright. Always keep in mind that unless the author expresses that you have the right to copy and distribute their work, you don’t. Of course, you may still have the right to sample these works if your project qualifies under fair use.

  1. Your school will probably sell you out for file sharing Illegal file sharing has been a huge problem on college campuses for years, and to fight back, Congress passed an amendment to the Higher Education Act in 2008 that really puts the smack down on college students who illegally download and share files online. Under the act, any college that receives federal money is required to establish and enforce copyright policies that are designed to stop illegal file sharing. So, if you’re sharing on campus, know that it’s extremely likely that The Man is going to come down hard on you.
  2. Owning a copy doesn’t mean you own the work College students buy books, DVDs, and CDs all the time. It’s important to remember that while you own the physical copy of a protected work, you do not own the copyright to the work presented. Rather, you are granted a license, which typically allows you to enjoy the work for your own personal use, but does not allow you to reproduce, display, or sell any part of it without permission.
  3. Attribution is not always enough While attribution certainly shows good faith, and is often necessary for certain Creative Commons licensed works, simply attributing a work to its author will not protect you when reproducing or sampling works. You are, however, protected if you follow fair use guidelines properly.
  4. Copyrights protect you, too It sounds like copyright laws come down hard on students who want to make use of awesome content, but the fact is that the laws are there to protect you as well. You own the copyright to anything you create as a student, even assignments created within a particular class. So the epic essay you wrote in English 101, your favorite photo from your beginner photography class, and even that silly student film you made are all copyrighted and owned by you, automatically. Your work can be sampled under fair use, but it can’t be used otherwise without your explicit permission.
  5. Your ownership of notes is questionable, however Although it’s clear that any projects you create are your own, notes that you take in class may not actually be protected by copyright. At California State University and the University of California, administrators are challenging the notion that you own your lecture hall doodles. They argue that faculty members have more ownership than students do. This movement is primarily in force to prevent students from selling their notes to course prep websites. The real answer is not yet clear, but it’s a good idea to operate under the assumption that it’s possible your ownership of lecture notes may be challenged.