Cite Right

Suppose you spent a very long time creating a very good film. Beyond your own time, you had to employ others who worked with you.

By the time you and your team finished the project, you (and they) had spent a year (or more) of your lives making the movie.

Beyond your time, you had to invest lots of money on people, equipment, marketing and other such expensive items needed to make the film.

How willing would you be to just give that movie away to anyone who wanted to see it - for free?

If people argued they were entitled to watch your very good movie, for free, what would you tell them?

Without doubt, you’d tell them they were being unfair. Because ... they would  be unfair.

Now suppose other individuals went even farther in their desire to use your very good film. Not only do they want to use it for free, they want to claim it as their own work. 

How would you react to that? Not well, of course, because what gives someone else the right to take your work and claim it as their work? 

This, in a nutshell, sets-up how we should view the use of copyrighted material.

When we use work created by others, to support our projects, there are some rules which apply. That’s the subject of this “Cite Right” tutorial.

The first thing to ask is whether the work, we want to use, is copyrighted.

  • Recently created movies / books / music / photography / etc. are usually subject to a copyright owned by the creator(s). The copyright protects the creator(s) from someone else just taking the work, and using it, without permission and/or payment.
  • Copyrights in the U.S., generally speaking, last until 70 years past the death of the owner.
  • Copyright holders can decide to share their work.
  • They can do this by making the work freely available (placing it in the “public domain”) - or - by licensing their products (for a fee) or by licensing their products (for free). It is the copyright holder who makes that decision - not the user. 

If the copyright holder releases the work into the public domain, they will make that knowledge known. 

  • If we see a photo at Wikimedia Commons, among other places, which has a copyright symbol with a diagonal line drawn through it, that means the owner of the work has placed it into the public domain.
  • Works in the public domain can be freely used by anyone.
  • If you use such a work, though, don’t pretend it’s your work. It isn’t your work.

  • You can use it, but you must (1) attribute the work to its creator; and (2) state that it’s in the public domain.

Some works - actually many, many works - are already in the public domain due to the passage of time. You are free to use those items, making sure you (1) attribute the work to its creator, if that fact is known; and (2) state that it’s in the public domain.

Some examples of expired-copyright works are:

  • Photos from World War I
  • Musical compositions by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach
  • Books by famous authors like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy

You can use those works in your projects - and you may actually modify them - but you still need to give attribution to the original creators. 

Some works are always in the public domain because of the employment status of the creators.

  • People who work for the U.S. federal government, for example, are paid by American taxpayers. Their jobs sometimes require them to produce what might seem like copyrighted work.
  • Photographs, videos, movies, books, paintings and other materials, created by federally employed people, do not have copyrights. When the works are created, they are public-domain works. 
  • People in other countries, even though they are not American taxpayers, are also entitled to freely use those public-domain works because they were never copyrighted in the first place.
  • The best advice for this category of work?  Check what the holders of the works - like the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NASA, NOAA, etc. - say about them. If they are in the public domain, the holders will use words like “no known restrictions.” 

What about copyrighted works, which are licensed?

  • Some people license their works through an agency, like Getty Images. If so, there could be a fee to use the image. It is the user’s responsibility to check.
  • If you determine that the image you want to use is licensed, through a fee-paying agency, it’s a good idea to look around for comparable images which are licensed without fees.
  • Images licensed without fees are usually licensed via what’s known as “Creative Commons.”
  • Images / videos / written works / etc. which are licensed via Creative Commons, allows the user to freely use the work BUT the license which applies must appear near the work.
  • Depending on the type of Creative Commons license, you may have to give attribution to the creator. An example of such a license is CC BY-SA 4.0

Copyrighted material is also subject to “fair use.” There are laws - statutes and cases - which interpret “fair use.” Without being technical, or using legal-ease to explain “fair use,” keep these key points in mind: 

  • “Fair use” applies if you take a short segment of the work to use for your project and then amplify it in some meaningful way.
  • New books, for example, are frequently reviewed by critics who write about those new books in national / international newspapers, journals and magazines.
  • The reviewer routinely “lifts” passages from the new book to discuss the work. In doing so, the reviewer is amplifying the original work.
  • The critic is also providing valuable marketing for the book, causing interested people to buy it. 
  • The same thing applies to trailers of new movies. “Fair use” allows critics of the new film to talk about the work, causing potential ticket-buyers to get interested and “see the show” or “buy the video.” 
  • Fair use” particularly applies to the education world where teachers and students want to use the most-reliable information to support their lessons and projects.
  • If you claim “fair use,” however, always be sure to note who owns the copyright - the creator of the work - and that you are using is as fair use for educational purposes.

What if you cannot find any source material for a picture / drawing / video clip / etc. you want to use?

  • If a diligent search about copyright leads to a dead end - and this will happen frequently if the work is old - you can note that in your citation.
  • If you find the name of the original publication, but not the name of the image-creator, cite the publication and note that the photographer / illustrator / engraver / etc. is unknown.
  • No one is going to expect you to find what cannot be found, due to the passage of time and the age of the work.

To be on the safe side of copyright issues, look for:

  • Out-of-copyright works (like old pictures / drawings / illustrations / written works)
  • Works produced by employees of the U.S. government (although you need to be sure those items aren’t co-sponsored by another institution which could hold a copyright)
  • Works whose creators have licensed them via Creative Commons. 

Now that you know how to “Cite Right,” you should be worry-free as you produce your magnificent projects!


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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5183stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 20, 2015

Updated Last Revision: Jun 25, 2016

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