Ever found that perfect figure that beautifully illustrates a point you’re trying to make? Ever wonder if it’s okay to use that perfect figure in your presentation? Are you infringing on someone’s copyright when you do? I attended a nice session on copyright the other day and I learned a few things I thought I’d share.
The first thing I learned is that when you create something, a text, a picture, a figure, a song, it is automatically copyrighted. You don’t have to apply for a copyright, nor put the little copyright designation on it (c inside a circle). It’s belongs to you unless you sign away your copyright to someone else.
The next thing I learned is that in general, use of a single figure from something does not constitute copyright infringement, especially if you attribute it to the source. It is considered “fair use” of that figure. That may not be true in some circumstances however, depending on other factors. There are basically four factors that are considered when it comes to the courts deciding on copyright infringement versus fair use. Put very, very simply (and from what I consider most important to least important), the four factors are:
- If your use of another person’s (or company’s) work will affect their bottom line, then you are infringing on their copyright.
- Is it transformative use or derivative? Are you using the figure or text in the same way that it was originally used, or are you using it for a different purpose entirely? For example a figure from a published paper, with a clear attribution allowing anyone to find the original, used in an educational lecture is fair use.
- If you copy an entire textbook and pass it to your students, that’s copyright infringement, and also goes to the fact that you’re eating into the publisher’s bottom line since now your students don’t have to buy the textbook. In general if you use less than 10% of a published work, you’re still in the fair use ballpark. Again, bottom line money can affect this.
- Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted. Expression of facts or ideas, or fixing them into a written work or figure, is copyrighted.
Another thing I learned is that Google images is probably not your best place to find images to use, especially if you want an image in something that you plan to publish. They are all copyrighted, and you will need to track them to their source and get permission to use them. However, for an occasional image in an educational powerpoint, including the attribution (usually in a link) is probably sufficient.
Of course, being a legal thing, copyright and fair use can be much more complicated than this, and lawyers and courts make their living making those decisions. I would say in general though, for a few random images in your powerpoint presentation, you are not breaking any copyright laws.
-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.