Google can find anything you want—an image, a devotion, an article, a sermon. One click and you can view it; copy and paste and you capture it. But just because it’s that easy to do it, does that mean you should do it? If we want our digital lives to match the beliefs of our analog lives, as believers and servants of Jesus, the answer is no. We need to be just as careful today that we are not using something that does not rightly belong to us, just as we did in junior high school when we were taught not to plagiarise material for school papers.
To help us do that, a review of what constitutes copyright, fair use, public domain and the newer Creative Commons designations is essential. Following this brief overview and some recommendations is a list of links to the U.S. government sites and other articles that explain these issues in more detail. Yes, this is work and a challenging area that we often do not want to be bothered with—but we work for the King of Kings and Lord of Lord and we need to do all our work as honestly and legally as we know how—no matter how hard it is.
This does not apply to any material you purchase: the images, clipart, articles you may have bought for a yearly or monthly fee.
(PLEASE NOTE: in all the templates and PDFs offered created for members of Effective Church Communications, it is OK for you to use them, ECC has paid for artwork or uses materials that are on copyright free sites. We carefully research that--it is an important part of the value provided to ECC Members.)
In very brief summary, since 1976, which is the date of the most recent copyright revision in the U.S., if you create something, you own the copyright to it. You do not have to register it or even use the copyright symbol. If you create it, you own it. Because the creator can grant use of it to someone else, that is why it is important to ask permission to use things that don’t belong to you.
What this means in practice: You also own the rights to give it away or allow others to use it. It also means if you don’t own it, it isn’t yours for the taking with the exception of what is known as Fair Use.
The law recognizes the right and need for people to be able to quote parts of a book, article or essay for education, editorial, and review reasons. To do this without quoting a major part of the material or simply copying the entire work is allowed under the law.
It is easiest to apply Fair Use to written material. Obviously if you copy an entire piece of writing and sell it to someone else or print it on the web without permission—that is stealing. If you quoted a short passage from a longer work, it would be fair use.
The Fair Use guidelines are much harder to apply to images because you seldom take just part of an image. One of the biggest guidelines here is whether you use the image in, for example, an educational setting or if you used it for commercial purposes. To use an image to illustrate a Sunday School lesson is one thing; to download and use it on a T-shirt that you sell is totally different and a clear violation of the law.
Fair Use however, can get very tricky. It is NOT OK to cite where you got something from and have it fall under the Fair Use rules if you copy the entire piece. That is simply telling people where you stole it from. If you tell people where you got it from or cite the reference, it is true that is not plagiarism because you are not claiming it as your own, but that does not give you the commercial or moral rights to use it. You need to write to the creator and ask for permission. If you can't pay for it, there are many free sites.
Many older materials (many of the writings of the church fathers, for example) or samples of Victorian art work, if they were not in a private collection or did not have their copyright renewed, are in the Public Domain and this means that they can be used by anyone.
This however, is another extremely complex area. There are two articles below that explain this in much more detail, but as always, this is an area, where if you are in doubt about whether something is legal for you to use or not, it is always best to contact the owner of the work or site where you found it.
This is a newer group, an international group of web-based individuals who have created ways for the creators of works to label their works in a variety of ways they will allow them to be shared. The various ways include with and without attribution, for commercial purposes or not and any combination of these restrictions. You can read more about them at www.creativecommons.org.
The website also has a very useful search feature on the home page that allows you to find items that can be freely shared. The group has also developed a way to label materials that are legally in the public domain however it will probably be some time before this is widely implemented.
Some practical advice
In addition to the Creative Commons listings, there are a number of places on the web (click here for a listing of them) that have copyright free clip art and images you can use. There are also some websites (such as this one) that encourage you to copy and pass on material and give you permission to do it. Most of the ones that do make it clear. If they don’t, take the time to email and ask.
In conclusion, back to the initial question of whether you can just grab something off the web. Here is a three-point checklist to ask yourself from the article by Goehner (the link is listed below):
- Would I perform this use with print media in this setting?
- Am I doing something to prevent purchase, lease or licensing?
- Do I hope that I will not get caught?
I especially like the last question, “Do I hope that I will not get caught?” We often know (I do believe it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to our spirit) when we are doing something we shouldn’t. If you have that nagging sense that you ought to be checking more carefully into whether it is OK to use something, don’t ignore that feeling. Check it out to see if you are doing what is right or not.
"As is often said, the devil is in the details — and so is the angel. Signs of character are most visible when they are least visible — that is, demonstrated by what people do when they think no one is watching, such as following the rules or taking the moral high ground with no audience observing them. That's why the signals of a leader's judgment lies in the small things. That's why we don't want to entrust national security, corporate finances, or leadership of a major enterprise to people who can't put institutional interests above personal indulgences."
From an article by Roabeth Moss Kanter, in Harvard Business Review online 9-9-2010
Yes, it always does take more time and care to make certain that it is legal to use the materials you want to use on the web, but we serve the Lord and no matter if it takes more time or not,
Additional helpful links
Overall U.S. government site on copyright, if you want to know the law and the history of it, this site has it. It is not overly complex or hard to understand.
An excellent summary of what is and isn't correct on the web as related to copyright:
Good article about copyright for educators, but with excellent comments on teaching morality:
The site that explains creative commons and links to its search function: