When it comes to fair use, public domain, and copyright issues, head straight to Stanford University's well-written, easy to understand summaries. Here's how to stay out of trouble when reproducing images, excerpts, and even linking to other sites and blogs. Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is the author behind the site, and his mission statement is to "free culture." Whether you agree or disagree, his vision is worth thinking about:
While new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can't do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What's at stake is our freedom--freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.I know there's controversy over how much of our creative output can or should be in the public domain, but I recommend three tools as the way to make sure you're in compliance if you want to reproduce other people's creations. To find works in the public domain (meaning you may reproduce them sans permission):
- use the search engines at the Gutenberg Library (download over 20,000 books in the public domain);
- try Creative Commons (goal: to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules);
- or do a search on Google Books, where if a work is presented in full view, it's in the public domain (select the button labeled "full view" before you do your search).
As for excerpts or snippets, fair use allows you to copy small portions of a work for "certain purposes such as scholarship or commentary." There are no hard and fast rules as to the number of words you may reproduce, but four factors come into play, and "the less you take, the more likely that your copying will be excused as a fair use. However, even if you take a small portion of a work, your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the 'heart' of the work. In other words, you are more likely to run into problems if you take the most memorable aspect of a work."
Bottom line: take the time to find out if you're violating copyright law. As St. Paul would say, I've been the "chief of sinners," so I'm going to wend my way through my archives and wrest the Fire Escape into compliance. Please let me know if any information in this post is faulty, and I'll fix accordingly.
Update: As for reproducing book covers on your site/blog, a question raised in the comments section, I'm (tentatively) going ahead with it. An article by Carrie Russell in the 7/1/06 issue of School Library Journal argues that covers are in the "fair use" category. Amazon was recently challenged on the book cover issue, and won. It seems, then, that it's legal for online booksellers to reproduce covers, so if we link to and derive the image from a bookseller, we may be safe. Of course, I have absolutely no legal qualifications, so if anybody wants to chime in, please do so ...