You can’t infringe in your thoughts…

XKCD comic strip - person reads whole book in bookstore, goes to leave and his/her brain sets off the security alarm.
“Bookstore” CC BY-NC Randall Munroe

…and it’s actually also nearly impossible to infringe something just by talking about it.

What copyright owners own is the right to decide who (if anyone) gets to make/distribute copies of a work, who gets to produce derivative works (like translations and adaptations), and who gets to perform or display the work publicly. (17 U.S.C. § 106)

Talking about a work rarely involves any of the activities that copyright owners are allowed to control. You can name the work (titles are not copyrightable in the U.S.), summarize the work in your own words, and criticize the work without even raising a copyright issue.

Somehow this continues to be an issue people worry about with respect to links online – I still fairly regularly field questions from people who have been told that linking to a publicly available web resource requires permission. But fundamentally, all that links do is tell people where to get a legitimate copy of a work – they’re just another form of talking about the work. Can you imagine if copyright law prevented you from telling friends about a great new book you just got from the library?

Of course, with all things copyright, it’s never quite that simple. Linking to illegal or blatantly-infringing content is generally held to be a problem, especially when the intent of the link is to encourage illegal activities or infringement. Linking can raise trademark issues, especially if there is intentional or actual (even if unintended) confusion about sponsorship or endorsement of a site or of content. It can be difficult to pick apart and apply the court rulings, especially since judges that do not understand the technological realities sometimes
issue opinions that are difficult to apply in the real world.

Learn more about legality and links from Chilling Effects/EFF and Links & Law.

Clearing Tracks – Rail Snow Plows (JoPD/CC)

(I have been sharing “Joys of the Public Domain” and “Treasures of the Creative Commons” on my Twitter feed for a while. They’re just things (mostly pictures) that I’ve stumbled across and enjoyed. Expect more random collections like this in the future!)

My office window looks out over the Mississippi River bluffs; today the view is obscured by a gentle-but-blinding (5-7″ expected accumulation) snowfall. Road crews across the state and the Upper Midwest are still at work digging out from a bigger storm 10 days ago, so I had snowplows on my mind as I headed to The Commons on Flickr this morning.

Since many public domain images are fairly old, the niftiest plows I found were those used to clear railway lines. Check these out:

Black & white photo of large rail plow, covered with snow, attached to two engines. Sitting on apparently-clear tracks at Warner, Alberta, Canada - 1909
Snow Plow and Alberta Railway And Irrigation Company Engines 22 And 25 At Warner, Alberta. 1909. From the Galt Museum and Archive‘s Collection.

Black & white photo of large rail plow at station, some snow still stuck on the blade. A person stands atop the plow. O&W line, 1880s.
O&W Snow Plow #3, circa 1880. From the Cornell University Library Collection.
(O&W apparently refers to the New York, Ontario & Western Railway.)

And most spectacularly:
Black & white photo, head-on view of rail plow charging a five-foot drift - the plow is invisible below the drift, and obscured by fountains of snow it is throwing upwards. Spectators are watching from behind a fence.
“Effect of three engines & snow plough charging a five feet drift of snow at Altnabreac, Caithness.” By James Johnston. 1895. Collection of the National Archives, UK.

After exploring the public domain images for a bit, I got curious to see if the technologies have changed over time. In some ways, not so much…

The Mighty Plows - modern configurable wedge or slanted rail plows
The Mighty Plows. CC by Orin Zebest.

But in other ways…
World's Heaviest Snowplow - side-angle view of enormous aluminum-colored train engine that carries a set of huge fan-like blades in front
World’s Heaviest Snowplow. CC by-nd Chuck “Caveman” Coker.

Here’s another angle on one of these “rotary plow” things!
Snow eater train - head-on view of the fan-like blades of a rotary plow in a train museum
Snow eater train. CC by-sa Nelson Minar.

So much to be learned from and shared in the public domain and the Creative Commons. I’m very thankful for both!

Lawyering is such a downer

Child's drawing of law school graduateBeing a lawyerbrarian, I often have conversations with people about how the law works. Fairly often, those conversations are frustrating, discouraging, or downright disheartening for all involved. Here’s a hypothetical rendering of one such conversation:

J. Random Librarian: When federal employees produce documents, there’s no copyright in them, right?

Copyright Librarian: Most of the time, that’s right.

JRL: So, when there are articles in an online journal a hypothetical library subscribes to, written by hypothetical federal employees, the library can just, hypothetically, give people access to those articles, right?

CL: Are we talking about hypothetical people-not-affiliated-with-the-library?

JRL: Yes.

CL: Weeeeeell…

JRL: Well what? The articles are public domain! The authors never gave copyright to the journal publisher, because there never was a copyright in them to begin with, so it’s not like the journal publisher owns a copyright anyone’d be violating!

CL: All absolutely 100% correct.  [ pause ]  However, there’s this little thing called contract law…

—several frustrating-for-all-involved minutes later—

CL: Sooo. If the hypothetical library contract specifies who can access the electronic journal through the subscription, then providing access to people who are not part of the group specified in the contract, would, hypothetically, be a contract violation. But because contracts are only binding on the parties who agree to them, if those same hypothetical unaffiliated individuals got hold of legitimate copies of the articles in some way where they didn’t have to agree to any contract with the publisher, they could make as many copies as they wanted! Because there is no copyright to worry about, and they would not be subject to any contract restrictions.

JRL: But if the only access to these hypothetical articles is through institutional subscriptions, doesn’t that effectively remove them from the public domain? That’s just wrong!

CL: Unfortunately, the law in the U.S. is pretty big on letting people contract away most kinds of rights…

JRL: But the hypothetical people who need access to this article are employees of the same government agency as the people who wrote the paper in the first place!

CL: OMG. The hypothetical agency doesn’t have its own copies??? This is pretty ridiculous and not the right outcome, but the hypothetical library still probably can’t give access to the hypothetical people-who-are-not-part-of-their-subscription-model! Aagh!!!

Thank goodness lawyering not the only, or even the primary, part of my job.

Good Copyright and Creative Commons Practices – Presentation Slides

I’m calling this “Good Practices” rather than “Best Practices”, because hey, there might be better ones!

Images punch up presentation slides, it’s true. In fact, some of the most effective presentations I’ve ever seen have relied heavily or even exclusively on image-based slides. However, I very often see images used something like this:
Slide showing only a photograph and URL
The image is striking, and I definitely want to hear what a speaker has to say about it! But I’m distracted by that URL on the bottom – what’s it doing there?

The URL is because of copyright! Or citation! Or something!

If the presenter included the URL in an effort to comply with copyright restrictions, they’re pretty far off the mark. Often, presenters consider their use of an image to be fair use – and often they think that giving proper credit is part of fair use. This is a misconception: no URL, citation, or attribution is required under fair use – and if the use is not fair, no URL, citation, or attribution will make it so.

This particular image happens to be in the public domain – so a presenter using this image on a slide would not have to wonder if their use was fair. But neither would the presenter have to provide a URL, citation, or attribution. No one owns public domain documents; anyone can do anything they want to with them!

Certainly giving credit and/or citing sources is an important part of many forms of discourse – but if the presenter was trying to give me information about the source of
the image, the URL (especially such a long one) gives me almost no useful information. A traditional citation or a brief caption would be more informative for viewers than a URL. But including any textual information directly on the slide can be a big distraction: a list of citations, including URLs, as part of a bibliography or “image index” slide towards the end of the presentation might be a useful alternative in such situations.

I’d also suggest that, when the mode of discourse doesn’t call for it, or when an image is so iconic that everyone knows where it came from in the first place, providing a citation on a presentation slide looks a little silly. It’s not a moral failure to skip providing attribution. In fact, it’s so much not a moral failure that United States copyright law almost never cares about attribution or citation.

But I’m using Creative Commons images – I have to include the URL!

Creative Commons resources are AWESOME! I love Creative Commons! (Happy Birthday, Creative Commons!) I’m sure I’ll talk a lot about Creative Commons on this blog, including posts in the future about what CC is, how you can use stuff that’s available under CC, and making your own stuff available. However, the issues I’ve seen on presentation slides are from people who already know a lot of the basics, but are also a little confused.

It’s true you must provide attribution anytime you use something that’s CC-licensed (except for CC0-licensed works.) However – URLs are not sufficient to satisfy Creative Commons attributions requirements!

A lot of folks get their CC-licensed images from Flickr, and Flickr’s Community Guidelines do ask you to link back to the original image on their site. But the Community Guidelines aren’t exactly a legally binding document (especially for people who are not registered users), so it’s not a legal requirement to link back to the original. It’s certainly good practice to link back when you can, but in offline media, sometimes you just can’t.

What you can do, and what is actually required under the Creative Commons licenses, is provide full attribution, either on the slide itself, or in a list of images on a separate slide towards the end of your presentation.

At minimum, proper Creative Commons attribution should include:

  • the name or user ID of the creator
  • the title of the work, if any
  • the Creative Commons license under which the original work is available
  • a reproduction of any copyright notices the creator included
  • if you’ve made a derivative work, an identification that your work is derivative

Here are some examples of Creative Commons attributions that meet these standards:

On presentation slides:
Slide using photo, with CC attribution enlarged

Slide showing photo, with CC attribution enlarged

On paper and PDF copies of a poster:
detail image of CC attribution on a poster
You may note that I often downplay the attribution by using small font sizes and lower-contrast text colors (though readable for most audience members.) This is because extraneous text on the slide is distracting to viewers. Sometimes a list of image credits towards the end of the presentation really is the most sensible way to provide attributions. When displaying my own images, public domain images, or even sometimes images under fair use, I usually credit them verbally, if at all.

Tips and tricks to help with appropriate Creative Commons attribution:

  • Save images with file names that include the appropriate information. Examples from my image folder: “GeneticsExhibitSanJoseTech-ccbync-ThomasHawk.jpg” and “CourseReaders-byncnd-SteelWool.jpg”
  • Download some Creative Commons icons, or get the CC Icons font
  • Use an attribution helper script (this one requires the Greasemonkey plugin, and I haven’t yet seen any that create entirely ideal attributions.)

Creative Commons images that appear in the examples in this post:

UPDATE: Creative Commons has a great post on their Wiki about attribution practices, including in videos, etc.: