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Research on the Free Web Tutorial: E. Intellectual Property and Ethics

Just because you can see it doesn't mean you can have it

We want the services that we use on the web to protect our privacy and our interests and be up front about what they are doing with our personal data.  We get irritated and angry when they do something inappropriate or underhanded.  Turning that idea around, how do you treat the things that others have put up on the web?

  • Reading/Viewing it - OK, expected, fabulous. 
  • Linking to it - OK, expected, fabulous. 
  • Copying it - it depends.  Might be common practice, but that doesn't make it OK, and not necessarily fabulous.

Copying; that's the trouble area.  We're not talking about taking a minor quote, or paraphrasing a small portion in your paper (for which you would OF COURSE provide attribution and a citation in your bibliography).  That type of use is allowed.  We're talking about taking the whole thing or a big chunk and re-using it.  Here's what it boils down to:


Copying things from the web is a technological piece of cake, but is it OK?  It would be easier if the answer were a straight yes or no, but it's not that simple.   There are really two ideas at work here.  The first is the actual copying, and the second is whether you present what you've copied as if you created it.

The second idea is a no-brainer no-go.  If you use what you copy in a way that implies that it is your own work you are STEALING.  This type of activity is called plagiarism and is completely unacceptable.  There is a plagiarism section in the Scholarly Research Tutorial which covers this general idea and which you must understand (the goofy video from Norway at the bottom is a good introduction).  Even if it is OK to copy the material, it still isn't yours and you still have to give credit to the original creator.

The first idea is more complex.  When someone produces a creative work (e.g. an image, a poem, a book, a web page), they AUTOMATICALLY have a form of legal protection called copyright.  It doesn't have to be published.  It doesn't have to be formally presented.  It doesn't have to be registered anywhere.  They created it, and it is their "intellectual property" and they get to decide how it is reproduced and used by others.  

Where it gets complicated is in the levels of permission that allow intellectual property to be copied and used.

All Rights Reserved Creator retains complete copyright.  They have complete control over their work (there are a few exceptions called "Fair Use").  If you want to copy and use something that has complete copyright protection, you have to get permission from the copyright holder.
Some Rights Reserved you can copy and use the work as long as you follow some restrictions.  A group called Creative Commons is trying to make this easier for people in the digital environment by standardizing the licensing/labeling that tells you what the restrictions are.
Public Domain Automatically OK to copy.  You can change and adjust and use them in any way, but you still have to give credit to the original source.  Any creator can declare their work to be in the public domain and basically give away their rights to the work.

Let's look at this tutorial as an example.  There are numerous graphics included from other sources.  We searched explicitly for those with creative commons licensing that would allow us to use them here.  All have attribution and/or live links.  In places where we had to seek permission from the copyright holder to use/adapt something, we state that in a footnote.  We did that because we didn't create it, so it isn't ours and we can't pretend like it is.  The few graphics without attribution are, in fact, ours (such as the one above the table on this page).  If you wanted to copy and use it, you would have to seek our permission.

Before you think this is just an academic issue, here are three cases where plagiarism had serious, real-world consequences:

  • In March 2011, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of Germany (who might well have become Chancellor, the highest political office in Germany and who should have known better) resigned from office and withdrew from politics as a result of the uproar from the disclosure that his doctoral thesis had been heavily plagiarized.  And, of course, he lost his PhD degree.
  • Various academic faculty or administrators (who should have known better) lost their jobs after failing to attribute material that they used in speeches - it's not only in writing that you have to give credit for other's work.  Examples:
    • 2010: Gary W. Streit, President of Malone University, Canton, OH
    • 2002: Eugene Tobin, President of Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
  • Various journalists (who should have known better) plagiarized or anti-plagiarized (invented material and made up an attribution) and lost their jobs.  Examples:
    • 2012: Jonah Lehrer, New Yorker
    • 2003: Jayson Blair, New York Times

So now you know. And don't plagiarize, because, well, you know better.


End of Module 5


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