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Copycat–or Copyright?

No, not Marvel's Copycat! Copyright! (Image courtesy of
No, not Marvel’s Copycat! CopyRIGHT! (I don’t think I’d be asking her for permission on anything soon.) 
[Image courtesy of]
I have been tasked with working on a team that’s in the process of setting up a new standard of practice and a new process for handling copyright documents and multimedia. While many of you may have dealt with copyright issues due to the nature of your work, I haven’t dealt with it very much at all, so this has been quite an education, and I’m still learning the complexities.

I had some familiarity with copyright issues due to some articles by Scott Abel and discussions I’ve had with him. Scott’s one of those who’s brought this same issue to the content strategy world. Scott’s dealt with it from the perspective of content reuse, but also from the music perspective with song mash-ups. The idea is that in this age of content curation, what is okay to lift and reuse, and what it blatant plagiarism–or a copyright violation?

In the case of the company that I’m working with, it’s a little bit complicated. It’s not the same as doing a citation or crediting the creator of the document or multimedia object, but rather using it in other circumstances. Among some of the issues that have evolved include what happens when someone wants to use all or part of an abstract written that has been presented at a conference? Who owns the copyright to that? If there’s a graph, image, or other model in it, who owns it? Under what circumstances? When can we lift images for internal use versus external use like marketing or an instance whereby an external viewer cannot keep a copy (like an image or model used in a presentation or a brochure)?  I’ve been learning many use variations of these kinds of documentation, and learning when it’s legitimate and when it isn’t. Part of the problem the company has had–which I suspect is probably a common problem–is that outside marketing vendors are creating company materials would get an image, but there were instances when the vendor wouldn’t know if the image’s copyright license had been paid or permission received to use it. The vendor would not be able to answer the question of whether permission was received or not, and that opened up the company to potential copyright liability.

The company is smart that they are trying to get a better handle on this, and set down some stricter guidelines than they’ve had in the past. The last time they made a code of practice, it was before the age of tablets and smartphones, so it was time to revisit this. While the company can’t police everything, and much of the responsibility falls on the document author to help ensure that anything borrowed has proper permissions, they are attempting to set down some rules and a verification process that all necessary permissions for copyrighted items used have been obtained.  Part of my job is not only contributing to the establishment of what the verification process will be, but I will also be developing a DAM (digital asset management) system for employees to use that will have images, documents, etc. that the company has already licensed that would be safe to use in company documentation. Another part of my job going forward will be helping the company communicate this new verification process to get employees to follow-through.

While I’m still figuring out how to navigate through this project and understand my contribution to the project, it has made me rethink some of my own personal practices. I admit that I’m most likely a guilty party when it comes to not obtaining or crediting for images I’ve used. I’m sure I’m not the first or the last one to do that either, but often I will try to change an image in some way so that it’s more of a reuse than a permissions infringement, especially if it’s from a common image or source. Perhaps that’s not the best case scenario for reuse, but it’s very difficult to find great images for free that are royalty and license-free that capture exactly what you want to convey. Even so, it’s easier now–more than ever–to lift images or other information from documents or multimedia without proper permissions. Admit it–we’ve all used a snipping tool or did a print-screen capture on our computers at some point (or many times).

In the case of this company, I was finding out that they have very strict rules against this, and in the case of conferences or submissions to professional journals, the abstracts or posters later belong to the conference or the publisher, not the author. So if an author wanted to use part or all of his/her abstract in, say, a book later, he/she would have to get permission from the publisher or conference to use his/her own work! It sounds crazy, but that’s the system. Yet, it makes sense to keep one owner of the work for less complications. The additional complexity arises from the fact that each conference and publisher has different rules. Many have similar policies, but nobody has the same process and policy as another.  And this is what the company I’m helping–as well as other companies–have to navigate through.

I’m sure I’m going to be learning a lot more in the coming weeks about this topic, and it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold with creating this modified process. While keeping abreast of copyright issues is a daunting task, it’s really in our best interest to try to adhere to gaining proper permissions whenever possible. It protects all of us–not just the author or the publisher, but it protects users as well.

What do you think about copyrights and permissions? Do you think some of it is overkill in the digital age? What is your experience with it?

Include your comments about your experiences or opinions below. I’m curious to learn more about this to help me put it in perspective!

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Who says you can’t have a PDF book and print it too?

I’m in the process of recovering from a great weekend I had at the pre-conference of Lavacon hosted by the Adobe TCS team this weekend. There is so much to tell, but I’m working on a separate post for that, so stay tuned–it should be up in a day or so.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share something that I thought was pretty cool. Lavacon is taking place in Portland, Oregon, which is the home of the world famous Powell’s Bookstore. It is one of those landmarks that anyone who visits Portland has to visit, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The store occupies an entire city block, and includes both used books and new in print books. I was told by multiple sources that one should not think that an hour is enough time to spend in the store, as an hour easily turns into a whole day there. It’s THAT cool.

Marcia leads Val and I to Powell’s!

Well, I had a very limited window where I was going to be able to check out the city before returning home from the Adobe Day event, and my new friend, author Marcia Riefer Johnson who writes the blog, “How to Write Everything,” took me and Val Swisher, who is an Adobe Day and Lavacon speaker as well as the CEO of Content Rules, to Powell’s just for a quick visit, so that a) we could say that we had been to Powells, even if it was just a brief visit, and b) to show us this neat machine that prints books for customers on the spot! It’s called the “Espresso Book Machine“, and it prints out digital publications that are in the Powell’s catalog, and will print the book for you right on the spot.

Powell’s Espresso Book Machine!

Yes, while you wait!  Marcia goes into more details about how it works, and how she is using it for pre-publication purposes of her upcoming book coming out in April 2013 called, Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them.  Read about how she’s doing this in her blog.

In the meantime, as one of the things Marcia posted on her blog, she shared a YouTube video of how Powell’s Espresso Book Machine (EBM) works. I think this is pretty cool:

Now…imagine writing the user manual for this gadget? That would be quite the interesting and exciting task, now wouldn’t it be?

Val Swisher and I at Powell’s!

Val and I both felt that if we had the chance to go back to Powell’s, we definitely would. Thanks for taking us, Marcia! This looks like a great tool, not only as a consumer (this way, we can find lots of great tech comm resources and have them specially printed for us), but also as creators, allowing us to print our content as needed. Print is not dead! It has gone digital in more than one way!