Five Principles for Copyright Success

Principle 1: Link instead of copying.

What’s the best way to share an article with your students or colleagues?  Many people are accustomed to scanning or saving the article to their computer, and then attaching that copy to an email, or posting it online in a system like Blackboard.  Unfortunately, doing so means copying and distributing the article — both activities that are restricted by copyright.

To avoid those problems, it’s far better to find or create a link (URL) that points to an authorized online copy of the article, such as one posted by the publisher.  When you use the library’s Link Generator, you assure that only authorized Health Science Center users have access to the copyrighted material, and that they can access it without problems both on-campus and off-campus.

Besides reducing copyright hassles, there are other advantages to distributing links instead of copied articles:

  • Some email systems limit the number or size of attachments that users can send or receive, but links don’t have that problem.
  • Links don’t fill up computer storage limits — such as those in a Blackboard course site — like PDF documents do.

Principle 2: Always acknowledge your sources.

Researchers and educators recognize the ethical importance of citing their sources in all scholarly work.  The same principle extends to all teaching materials, writing and presentations you create — not only for quotes and text excerpts, but also every time you use images, videos, audio, or multimedia created by others.  Citing your sources is not a substitute for making sure you have proper permission to use those sources — and it isn’t a legal protection against an infringement claim.  Nonetheless, it’s an important example to set for students and colleagues, and some licenses grant permission to use material with the specific requirement that you acknowledge the creator or source of the material.

If you’re not sure how to properly cite material you’re using, we have some suggested tools and sources for you.

Principle 3: Seek permission to copy, redistribute or adapt material.

If you intend to copy, redistribute, adapt or perform a whole work or significant portion of it for your class, presentation, or project, you should always attempt to obtain permission from the rightsholder first.  This includes not just text, but also audio, video and images, which are often reused in their entirety (or near entirety).  You should document your request for permission before using the material, even if you don’t receive a response to your request before you give your class or turn in your project.

If the material was published with a copyright notice (i.e. “© 2006 Sample Publishing Inc.”) then it’s easy to know where to send the request — contact the person or company shown in the notice.  If not, then try to identify and start with the original author or publisher of the material — they can let you know if the rights have been transferred to someone else.  The University of Texas at Austin’s Copyright Crash Course includes a handy template for a permissions request letter that you can grab, fill in, and send.

Principle 4: Creative Commons makes it easy.

Many scholars and creators are happy for others to share, reuse and redistribute their work, and many don’t want to require everyone ask for permission as described above. In 2001, a group of education experts, technologists, legal scholars, investors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists came together to find a way to address this problem, and called themselves Creative Commons.  In 2002, the first Creative Commons licenses were released.  These licenses allow creators to retain the copyright to their work, but release their work for the public to use, with a few conditions (or in some cases, with no conditions at all).  The typical Creative Commons license allows anyone to reuse material, as long as they acknowledge the creator.  Some Creative Commons licenses allow reuse for only noncommercial purposes, some only allow uses that maintain the work in its original form (“No Derivatives”), and some require that any new work that adapts the licensed material also be released with a Creative Commons license (“Share Alike”).

For creators and authors who wish to allow others to share their work, Creative Commons licenses make it easy to ensure that their intentions are understood up front. For people searching for material to reuse and adapt, Creative Commons licenses make it easy to find that material and use it in a way that respects the creator’s wishes or conditions.  To choose a Creative Commons license and learn how to apply it to your work, use the “Choose a License”  tool.  We’ve also got some suggestions on how to easily search for Creative-Commons-licensed material that you can reuse and adapt for your own work.

Principle 5: Manage your own copyrights wisely.

Scholars are generally interested in ensuring the widest possible distribution of their work, to promote their own career growth and contribute to scholarship in their field. However, some publishers ask authors to sign over copyright in their work to the publisher as part of a publication agreement.  This can inhibit authors’ ability to reuse or distribute their own works to colleagues, students, or online repositories.  If authors don’t retain certain rights, it can also be difficult for them to comply with the terms of grants such as those from the NIH, which require authors to make their work available in a public repository (i.e. PubMed Central).

It is important for authors to understand that publication agreements are negotiable.  Many authors have successfully renegotiated these agreements with publishers, have stricken problematic language, or have attached addenda that retain important rights for themselves — and publishers have accepted these changes.

It’s critical that you carefully read any publication agreement that you are asked to sign by a publisher.  If there is language you disagree with, cross it out and write in alternative language.  You can also attach an addendum that spells out the rights you wish to retain.  One example of such an addendum is the SPARC Author Addendum which is explained in further detail here.

Further reading:

Creative Commons. Creative Commons [Internet]. Mountain View (CA): Creative Commons; 2011. Available from

Harper GK. Copyright Crash Course [Internet]. Austin (TX): University of Texas Libraries; 2007. Available from:

Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition. SPARC Resources for Authors [Internet]. Washington: Association of Research Libraries; 2011.

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