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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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Blast from the Past – Volume 1: The First American Technical Communicator?

Today’s entry from the TCGM grad school archives is from April 2010, when I was still a tech comm fledgling. Note the reference to Walter Issacson towards the end of the entry. His name might be more familiar to us now, as he is the official biographer of the late Steve Jobs, and whose book came out just after Jobs’ death last fall.  I have always been a history geek, so it was fun to try to make this connection back then (and I still stand by it!)

So what do you think…would ol’Ben here have been an m-learning advocate? Knowing his love of communication and technology, as well as his avid promotion of literacy and education, methinks he would’ve totally supported it!

Benjamin Franklin On a night when I finally felt mentally and physically exhausted enough to take a break, I found my husband channel surfing on TV. (Now that we have an HD-TV, he’s on it a lot more than he used to be.) Among the channels that he does like to watch– and I do too, is the History Channel in HD. Last night, I think the show was Modern Marvels, and they actually had the whole episode dedicated to the works of Benjamin Franklin. Now, I’ve always had a slight soft spot in my heart for Ben Franklin, ever since I was in about third grade, and read my first biography about him, and knowing that he had strong ties to Philadelphia, which is the city I most associated with when I was growing up (even though I lived halfway between New York and Philly, Philly has family and that was the “culture” I was oriented around.) This was recently revived with a trip to the Franklin Institute with my son.

Anyway, I didn’t catch the whole show, and of course, my husband would be channel surfing during commercials, but from what I was catching of the program, which was towards the end of the episode, they were talking about Franklin being ahead of time on many levels–which he was–and how he was a big player when it came to eighteenth century communication and science. We know that Franklin was the one who was a newspaper printer, a philosopher, a statesman, a politician, and a scientist. But the thing that ties all those other elements of this post-Renaissance man is that he was a writer. He was a prolific writer, in fact, writing everything from the contents of the Pennsylvania Gazette, to books about philosophy, and writing letters and documents that helped to form the United States and its diplomatic ties. He also opened up the first public library in the United States, specifically the Library Company of Philadelphia, whereby patrons could join for a small fee and share the books in the library, for the purpose of learning and being able to exchange ideas.

The  author Walter Issacson, who wrote a biography about Ben Franklin, was one of the commentators, and he was saying that if Ben Franklin lived in this day and age, he’d be loving it! With this being the digital age of email, computer communications, cell phones, Twitter, etc., Franklin would’ve been totally in his element, as he was all about the latest in science and communication, and for a guy in his time, he was on the cutting edge of such things. Part of a segment I saw talked about how Franklin was the first one to help devise the concept of watermarks and other security devices to protect the manufacturing of money, some of which are still used today.  It was also mentioned that if Franklin had a new way of doing something or a new invention, he always shared his ideas and how he did them, with the exception of this currency security printing method, understandably.  So, that makes me think that perhaps with all the cool inventions and discoveries he made, and considering that he was both a scientist AND a writer, that sharing that information made him the first American technical communicator.

What do you think? It’s a pretty good theory, anyway. 😉