The information found here is based on materials developed by Jean T. Kreamer and Georgia Harper for the LaCADE (Louisiana Consortium for the Advancement of Distance Education) program.

Copyright has become a widely discussed topic with the advent of the Internet. Images and designs are everywhere. It is so easy to click and save a background, a photograph, even a cartoon from a web site. Many ask “what are the rules?” Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about copyright laws.


1.         Why Do We Have Copyright Laws?

The purpose behind copyright law is the protection of the creator’s creation. If you come up with a fantastic new design for Kennesaw State University, for example, you would want credit and compensation for your genius. You would copyright the design and offer it to KSU. KSU might then decide to use it. You might grant KSU exclusive rights for free, or you might require a one time fee for KSU to buy the rights of the design, or you might request a sum of money every time the design is used. All of these negotiations would require you to waive, protect or sell your copyright. However, think about a situation where you sold your design to KSU for a fee each time the design was used or for a percentage of the sales. Then, a large discount chain began marketing shirts with your logo, but without your permission? What if buyers could get your great new design at half the price because you were no longer getting your cut? It’s great for the consumer and the discount chain, but you and KSU have been cheated.  To prevent such theft and unethical use, there are copyright laws.


2.         What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, or descriptions. To use another’s facts, ideas, or descriptions in your work you will need to cite properly using an acceptable form of documentation (MLA, for example). Copyright protects creative expression. Creative expression is found in designs (such as Web page designs or layouts, portfolio designs, etc), logos, pictures, icons, and other creative ways to express information.  A religious group recently used a cartoon character to deliver their message in a religious tract. Using a well-recognized cartoon character made the tract very popular, and the religious organization was very pleased with the results. However, the religious organization had not contacted the artist and negotiated any agreement for use of the image.  The religious organization was stunned when they were sued for copyright infringement.  To use an image, photograph, icon, logo, graph, chart, or layout that was not created by the user and for which the user has no agreement or authorization is an infringement of copyright.  It does not matter how benign you believe the use is or how beneficial you feel the use might be to the creator. It is an infringement of copyright to use creations that are not your own if you do not have permission from the creator or his or her agent.


3.                   Is it okay to take an image if I can save it to my desktop?

No. It is a mistake to think that an image is only copyright protected if the web page designer has made it so that the image cannot be copied onto the computer. Just because an image can be taken doesn’t mean it is not copyright protected.

4.                   Is it okay to take an image if I use it on my web page and make it a hyperlink that links back to the original source? Isn’t this free advertising?

It may be free advertising, but it is also a violation of copyright.  It is a popular myth that linking the image back to the original bypasses copyright laws. The designer can still sue you. Always get written permission to use a design.  Some designers announce that designs may be used if the designer is credited and/or if a link is provided back to the home page. In this case, you are given permission to use the graphic as long as you abide by the designer’s stipulations.


5.                  What about fair use laws? Can’t I use a graphic if I follow the fair use laws?

Unfortunately, graphics are not covered under fair use laws that apply to students. The limits of copyright exist mainly for libraries and government use. For example, a designer’s copyright protection does not prohibit libraries from making copies for interlibrary loan purposes or archiving; does not prohibit book owners from throwing away or reselling books; does not prohibit educational uses in face-to-face teaching and in distance learning; and does not prohibit making copies of a work or altering it to make it available to disabled persons.


6.                  Does that mean I can use another’s design in my technical writing paper or presentation?

Because your technical writing paper or presentation is an educational use for a restricted audience, you are allowed to use copyrighted designs, under certain conditions.  If a chart or graph or logo conveys the message that you want to convey in your technical writing paper or presentation, you may use it provided you cite it just as you would any other information that you used. Consult your documentation guide for proper documentation of graphs, charts, graphics, drawings, photographs, icons, symbols, or logos.  In addition, if you take the information from a chart but create the chart yourself, you do not need to cite the chart in your paper, but you will still need to cite the information and document it properly. If you take information from a source and create a graphic explaining that information, you still need to document your use properly.  The Conference on Fair Use (CONFU) Educational Fair Use Guidelines for Digital Images decided that “[s]tudents may download, transmit and print out images for personal study and for use in the preparation of academic course assignments and other requirements for degrees” (9). 


7.                  What if there’s no trademark or copyright symbol on the design?

Stealing another’s design is unethical.  It is also important to note that an absence of trademark does not mean the design is not copyrighted.  Designs that are in the process of copyright approval can win damage awards if an infringement occurs while the design is awaiting an official copyright. And today, copyrighted works are no longer obligated to carry notice of copyright. For works created after March 1, 1989, absence of copyright is no indication of copyright status.


8.                  Will an international company such as Sony really catch me putting a few of their song lyrics up on my personal web page?

Large companies employ lawyers to surf the web searching for infringements of their copyrights. Many humble college students have been surprised by letters from big-name firms threatening lawsuits if lyrics or logos aren’t removed from a personal web page.  There are additional penalties if materials in question are not removed quickly enough to suit the offended party.


9.                  Some of this seems very silly.  So what if I use a fast food logo on my web page or in my term paper and don’t get permission or proper credit. What does it really matter?

First, if you were the artist, wouldn’t you want proper credit for your creative expression? It’s just good manners. And it is not difficult to request permission to use designs. Second, copyright laws are in flux right now. There is a lot of debate about what is or is not fair use regarding the Internet (how can you write a movie review on the Internet without making a few movie clips available, for example? Is that fair use? Is that copyright infringement? These issues are being debated).  There is debate regarding whether a university can be sued along with a student if a student misuses a corporate logo on a university website. Obviously, everyone is very interested in who is liable. To keep yourself as safe as possible, err on the side of caution and respect copyrights.   


10.              What about copyright-free images, such as clip art?

If you go to a site that has copyright-free clip art, then that clip art is yours to use as you please. There are no restrictions or royalties involved regarding copyright-free images.