With all the emphasis on finding information and research materials, you might think of yourself as just a user of information. Let’s talk about you as a creator now. Most of us spend a lot of time every day online. It’s very likely that you create content often, whether or not you realize it. When you tweet, post on Tumblr, or share photos on Instagram, you are creating content. You’re not just sharing content you created; you’re sharing information about yourself and your interests.
In college, you’re building on your content creation skills to develop content that is more academic by using other formats or platforms. When you write a paper or give a formal presentation, you’re taking an active role in continuing the scholarly conversation. You’re creating information on academic topics in a way that demonstrates your learning and mastery. As you continue your studies, you may create course projects that you’re proud of and can use in a professional portfolio.
As soon as you create something that is your own work, such as a short story you’ve written or a video, you hold that work’s copyright. You have automatic protection under copyright law. You don’t need to actually register your work to have copyright protection.
Copyright refers to federal laws that, in the US, were originally intended to protect the works and the rights of authors. Copyright law determines how or if someone else’s protected work can be legally copied, posted on the web for others to use, performed, or reused. Often fees and lawyers may be involved in settling the terms or conditions of reuse. For example, libraries often pay fees to post copies of journal articles and published book chapters online in course reserves for students like you to use. Copyright infringement means copying or distributing someone else’s copyrighted material without permission.
You might wonder why information would need to be protected. The original idea behind US copyright law back in 1790 was to incentivize authors to create more works. The law was intended to help authors and creators make a living from their works and to publish without fear that someone else could copy or resell their work without their permission. Authors as copyright holders could control how their works might be used or reissued and guarantee that they themselves would profit from legitimate sales and reuse of their creative works.
So how is this relevant to you?
As you might expect, a lot has changed since the 18th century. Copyright may no longer be protecting authors’ rights. Professors, researchers, and scientists are often encouraged to publish their works with high-prestige publishers. These pressures have given publishing companies the control to require authors to sign over their copyright upon publication, effectively handing over the rights to scholarly information. Because of this model, publishers are allowed to raise journal, book, and textbook prices to exorbitant levels. While authors benefit from having their works published by high-profile publishing companies, in the process, they have lost copyright control of their own works. This publishing environment has a major impact on us both as consumers and producers of content.
If you want to learn more about copyright law, copyright.gov from the U.S. Copyright Office is a good place to start.