APCUG Association of Personal Computer User Groups APCUG

Are Legal and Ethical Questions
Being Ignored in Content Copying?
by Ken Fermoyle

The growing trend of copying content, especially from the Internet, disturbs many of us involved in the creation and use of material for User Group or other non-profit newsletters and websites. In reading hundreds of newsletters and visiting scores of websites in recent years, I've seen many examples of plagiarism, copyright infringement and downright theft of intellectual property.

I thought I was the only one worried about the problem until a variety of knowledgeable editors and UG officers, including APCUG (Association of PC User Group) representatives, told me they also viewed it as a problem.

Actually, everyone should be concerned. Unauthorized copying could create legal difficulties for a group; it certainly poses ethical questions. Closer to home, if you have a personal or business website, you should be aware of copying do's and don'ts.

Several people with whom I have discussed illegal copying agree that it usually results from lack of knowledge, not malicious intent. People Material is so readily available on the Web, and we're so accustomed to unrestricted access to the Internet that it's easy to assume that everything you see on it is up for grabs.

Several people urged me to devote a column to educate readers on the subject. "Please write a Ken's Korner article giving editors and webmasters some guidelines for the use of material from outside sources," several people urged.

Easier said than done!

I don't pretend to be an expert on copyright laws, though over the past 50 years I have learned practical rules of thumb that most editors follow. Moreover, advent of the Net has raised all sorts of new questions, both legal and ethical, about copyrights and "intellectual property."

That said, let me give you my views on the subject.

First, fair game for use in UG media includes articles written specifically for such purpose. Examples include my Ken's Korner pieces, Bob Click's Deals column and articles distributed by APCUG. Most UGs allow other groups to reprint material from their newsletters, subject to some restrictions.

More free material designed for user groups comes from Microsoft's Mindshare website (www.microsoft.com/mindshare/default.asp).

Vendors' public relations releases, distributed via snail mail, e-mail or the Net, also are legitimate freebies for use by editors and webmasters. A caution here: it may be a disservice to members to run such material "as is." It's a form of propaganda or advertising, remember, and might give a much rosier review than a product or service deserves. I sometimes use PR releases as a basis or background for columns, but I research and/or get hands-on experience to provide a balanced, more objective article. I know it takes time, but I recommend this approach to editors.

Now for the no-no's.

Do not pick up magazine articles and reprint them in your newsletters without specific permission to do so from the publication in question. Never! The fact that they might appear on a website does not mean they are public property. As a former magazine editor and longtime freelance writer, I'm especially sensitive in this respect because it could take bread from my table.

Unless I choose to give away my writing product, I expect compensation for my work. The publication in which it appears also expects to be paid, by readers or in reprint fees, for providing the information. If it is not paid, I'm paid, nor are other contributors.

Unauthorized use of the material is theft, pure and simple.

The same goes for clipart, photos and illustrations. Unless specifically identified as available for use, free of charge, reprinting such material without specific permission is thievery. Some material on the Web is available for reprint without charge to not-for-profit organization.

Be sure to read the fine print, however on ANYTHING you reprint from the Internet. There usually are conditions attached. I know of cases where "free" material may not be used in publications that have a subscription fee, cover price or contain paid advertising.

Quoting from external sources in articles or reviews is acceptable, if done judiciously. Use a short excerpt to illustrate a point but don't lift a significant number of pages, let alone a chapter, and make it part of your article. Always identify such material by using quotation marks.

Typically, publications (and books) contain language like this. "All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by electrical or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing by the publisher."

Often, in books, this phrase appears: "except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review."

Before using any material from a Website, look for a statement that says that content on the site is freely available for copying and reprinting. Then, as I said earlier, read the fine print to be sure you understand the conditions of use. If you find such a notice, only then can you legally and ethically copy and reprint text or images in your group or personal newsletter or Website

If you don't find such a statement, look for a button or link marked "Copyright" or "Terms of Use."

In commercial Websites, such a link takes you to a statement, similar to the following, on "Reproduction of Images and Other Copyrighted Material Found on Web Sites."

"You should be aware that it is illegal to reproduce or distribute copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright owner. Accessing images or text provided on Websites does not give you any rights to use them as you wish. Only the copyright owner, or the owner's legal agent, can give you permission to copy, distribute, or publicly display protected material. The copyright owner in most cases is the creator. Images are generally owned by the photographer; text is owned by the author."

The wording may be different, but the intent is always the same: To establish legal ownership of the publication or website content, and to warn off those who want to copy any or all of the content that it is illegal to do so without specific permission.

You might say to yourself, "My newsletter only goes out to a few hundred people; they won't mind if I copy this one article or photo."

Not so! That's somewhat like, if not exactly analogous to, a counterfeiter saying, "I'm just going to print up a few hundred $20 bills so Uncle Sam won't mind."

Now the wrath of a copyright owner may not descend on you with the fury that the Treasury Department would bring down on a counterfeiter. Illegal copying could, however, have embarrassing consequences if the copyright owner learns about the infraction and chooses to be hard-nosed about it. Even if there are no legal repercussions, improper reprinting of material casts an ethical shadow over any organization, including all members, that condones it.

Ken Fermoyle, columnist & publisher Fermoyle Publications

"In the beginning was the Word..." And don't you forget it!