Last fall, with the help of the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State University, I conducted a study among technical and professional writers (writing in educational contexts), “Is there a Chilling of Digital Communication,” exploring how copyright influences their writing practices – how much they understand copyright, how important they think it is, and whether or not copyright is causing problems or otherwise influencing choices these writers make when composing for the web. I think we can pretty much agree that there really isn’t a way around the “copyright problem” when writing in digital environments, and this fact was agreed on by the writers in the study.
The study used a digital survey (created on Survey Monkey) of over 300 writers, as well as face-to-face interviews with seven digital writers who were professional writing students or had recently graduated with professional writing degrees. During the interviews, the writers shared some of their web compositions/web designs, and talked to me about how copyright law did or did not influence the choices they made when writing for the web.
I put together a report on the study findings, “Study Report: Knowledge and Influence of Copyright Law for U.S. Professional Writers Working in Educational-Context Digital Environments,” which can be downloaded here. The report contains a list of the 14 copyright-knowledge questions I used in the survey (334 writers finished the entire survey), as well as answers to those questions, and question-by-question results on how the writers answered each question.
For example, one of the copyright questions asked: “When you were 2 years old, you drew an original crayola drawing from your imagination. You’ve saved it all these years. Unbeknownst to you, your friend steals this from you, scans it, and posts it on her web page as part of the design. You have no right to ask her to take this down based on copyright laws, because such drawings are not copyright protected in the US anyway.”
This question tried to test whether or not professional writers knew that under U.S. law (and the prompt for the survey specified U.S. law applied), everything and anything that is fixed in a tangible form of expression, and is “original,” is copyright protected. For this answer, 74% of 336 people said it was false, and 26% said it was true, with the best answer being false. So on this topic, most writers knew that theoretically, a 2 year old’s drawing could be copyright protected. Imagine if that 2 year old turns out to be Madonna or Barack Obama – those drawings could in fact end up having a huge market value.
One thing that arose during the interviews as well as the survey was that professional writers have a high interest in Creative Commons licensing, as well as exploring other means to use another’s text, designs, visuals, audio, etc., with permission (rather than relying on the “fair use doctrine” as explained below).
Yet, there was evidence of a little bit of misunderstanding among the survey-takers on the topic of licensing. In the survey, writers only scored 51% on the questions that tested understanding of the differences between authorized (licensed) and unauthorized use of another’s copyrighted materials. On the other hand, on the questions that tested knowledge about fair use and copyright in general, the writers scored 71%. By the way, many of the questions were very complicated and long, so 71% is a remarkably high score.
So I thought I’d use my invitation to blog to explain the basics of using or allowing others to use your content with a license, like Creative Commons, versus relying on the fair use doctrine. One of the survey questions asked, “If you use something with a Creative Commons license, it means you automatically get fair use.” The best answer was false because fair use under section 107 of title 17, USC, applies to unauthorized use. A Creative Commons license provides authorization for a use. It provides a “license” to use. And so, using an item under a Creative Commons license means that you don’t need to worry about fair use because you have a license. 68% of 339 writers got this answer correct, while 32% were not correct.
Another survey question asked: “Mary, a law abiding citizen, is using a large chunk of text (1,000 words) in her web page. The sole copyright holder of this text is her friend Tim. Tim’s given her express written permission to use this text in her web page. Even so, as a conscientious, law abiding citizen, Mary should still make sure she is within fair use when using Tim’s text in her web page.” 52% said false, and 48% said true, with the best answer being false.
Since Tim gave Mary written permission, he’s given her a license to use the text. Instead of using Creative Commons, which accomplishes the same ends as other kinds of permissions, Tim gave Mary express permission to use his work. Since Mary has a license to use it, she does not need to make a fair use determination as long as she uses within whatever terms Tim may have specified in his written permission. In this case, he gave her permission to use his text in her web page and that’s what she is doing.
In the study report I wrote, I drafted my own custom license rather than rely on Creative Commons, although Creative Commons is a wonderful tool. My license states: “This report may be copied and distributed freely in whole or part. We appreciate attribution. Regarding the copyright quiz questions and answers appearing in Appendix 1, please copy and distribute freely and with respect to the quiz questions and answers appearing in Appendix 1, attribution is not needed.”
One of the tendencies among content creators is to require attribution in any license they apply to their work. However, as the study participants pointed out, in web design attributing another can be very problematic. For one thing, it can play havoc with the design, and for another thing, it can confuse the client if you’re working for someone.
Since the quiz questions I created would likely be integrated into some kind of interface, I thought it best not to require attribution since my main goal is to increase the knowledge and understanding of these issues among professional writers. These are the kinds of choices you have to make when anticipating how you want your own work appropriated (or not).
And so, this issue of shaping how others might use your materials down the line was an important one for the writers in my study. They also had questions about how they might use others’ copyright materials, legally, in their own web texts. Some of the writers I spoke with had started their own web design business, or were doing web writing for family members and friends, and they wondered where they could obtain copyright “safe” materials. Exploring the Creative Commons web site might provide a start here.
Another important issue that arose concerned the differences between writing under “fair use” in educational contexts and writing in for-profit work environments. It became clear to me, based on some of the tensions these professional writers were facing, that ideas about authorship and ownership of intellectual creations bumped up against each other as writers transitioned from school-to-work. I am currently designing a subsequent study that focuses exclusively on copyright and authorship in the workplace.
Martine Courant Rife teaches technical writing at Lansing Community College and she is a recent recipient of a PhD in Rhetoric & Writing from Michigan State University. She is also an attorney admitted to practice in two states with an active license in Michigan.
Martine generally writes on the topic of copyright and digital writing, and we invited her to share her findings from a study she conducted that explored how copyright influences writing practices for professional writers. Check out Martine’s insights on how professional writers need to consider fair use, copyright, and other issues of authorship when writing for the web. If you have questions about copyright and digital writing, feel free to contact Martine at martinerife [AT] gmail [DOT] com.