The Student's guide to Creative Commons & Fair use

Summary:The world of citation and licensing can be a minefield for students. What do you need to be aware of?

Any work that is not a students', including text, music or images, if not cited is by definition plagiarized.

In the worlds of academia, press, or other creative industries that use source information or visuals within its borders, no matter what the copyright permissions are, it's best to be on the safe side and provide a citation.

Not only this, but it is entirely plausible that using a music clip in a project you don't have the correct permissions for could land you in court. It's not a matter of choice; it's a requirement.

Students can be charged for plagiarism offences, fail a course, have to retake or in severe cases have to withdraw from academic study. If the affair gets taken further, legal action is a possibility. Students often cut and paste text or images, and the clear line between plagiarism or not is simply accreditation in the manner specified by the owner.

Some examples of students and legal action taken against them for plagiarism include:

It can be difficult to know what you can and cannot use. Creative Commons licensing and 'Fair use' guidelines may not simplify matters, but actually confuse them. So what do you need to know?

'Fair use'

As a rule, anything online, whether a publication, movies, newspapers, audio files, logos, games or images are likely to be copyright protected. 'Fair Use' covers the copying of copyrighted material in limited and 'transformative' ways -- for example, in order to comment on or parody original work.
  • 'Fair Use' guidelines mean that students can use certain data for educational purposes without receiving prior permission.
  • Short quotations and ideas can be used without applying for permission, as long as the author and source is cited properly.
  • Commenting and critiques: You are allowed to reproduce some elements of work in order to achieve your purpose. For example, you can quote several lines of a song for a music review, but you are not allowed to quote the entire song.
  • If you're not sure, don't be afraid to email an author and apply for permission. If you receive permission, keep a documented copy.
  • Parodies: The nature of this is to take certain aspects of an original piece of work and build upon it. Under 'Fair Use', this stretches to using original content in order to "conjure up" the original.

Creative Commons licenses

If copyright stands for 'all rights reserved', then Creative Commons can be considered 'some rights reserved'. Also known as 'CC' licenses, creators can specify the ways in which they allow their work to be reproduced or built upon.

Depending on the type of license specified, you can share, alter, and reuse work in different ways. Compfight is a search engine which allows you to find Creative Commons licensed images, and a user can find images for commercial use, apply for licenses, and download images that can be modified. The six standard licenses are:

  • CC By: Attribution -- Others can share, alter and build upon work as long as the original author is credited.
  • CC By -SA: Attribution-ShareAlike -- Others can share, alter and build upon work as long as the original author is credited and any altered versions are licensed under the same terms.
  • CC By -ND: Attribution-NoDerivs -- Others can share work as long as the original author is credited.
  • CC By -NC: Attribution-NonCommercial -- Others can share, alter and build upon work as long as the original author is credited and the use is not commercial.
  • CC By -NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike -- Others can share, alter and build upon work as long as the original author is credited, the new creation is licensed under the same terms, and it is not for commercial purposes.
  • CC By -NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs -- Others can share work as long as the original author is credited. Work cannot be used commercially or altered in any way.

Some students believe if they see Fair Use or Creative Commons that their bases are covered and they do not need to worry about citation or credit. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and can be tantamount to theft. In academic circles, in severe cases, this could have extremely damaging consequences.

As a golden rule: If the work isn't yours, credit it.


Topics: Legal


Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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