internet archive

Don’t Be a Thieving Jerk

As a blogger and eLearning developer I am hyper aware of what media and resources I am
using. I am sure many of you are as well. There is a narrow balance beam to walk between
being a thieving jerk online and being so paranoid you have to create everything from scratch. Between social media, Google Images, and lots of free repositories, it can be hard to know when you’ve fallen into the thieving jerk side of things.

Lucky for all of us, last night I attended a wonderful event held by the ASTD DC Metro chapter (you should really join your local ASTD chapter for resources such as these).   A real life copyright attorney, Leigh Winstead from Odin Feldman Pittleman, was there to answer all of our questions on this insanely complicated topic.  Ok, so not all of our questions… she tried valiantly but we could have had her there well past midnight.

The one clear YES

There is only one sure rule with copyright: if you get permission, you are in the clear. Everything else is a grey area.  But there are some guidelines you can use to determine if you are making a good decision.

Fair use

To use some legal jargon for a sec, U.S. Copyright law states that, even if you are using an entire copy of a work, “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

“YAY!”, every trainer ever yells from the rooftops. “I can use anything I want in a class!”

But wait, not so fast.

Unlike, say, a public school, we are (hopefully) profiting off of our trainings.  There are actually several factors that help determine a case, because why would the law be easy to understand? Leigh provided us with these handy-dandy tips to make things a little less murky. Don’t worry… I got permission.

Factors Influencing Fair Use

Yay!  🙂

Boo!   😦

Your purpose

Nonprofit uses, criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, parody Commercial activity, profit or entertainment
Nature of the copyrighted work Factual, nonfiction, educational Fiction or highly creative

How much is used

– Small portion, non-significant portion, or what is appropriate for educational purposes
– Work transformed or altered
– Large portion, the entire work, or a piece that is central to the copyrighted work
– Work reproduced identically

Effect on the market

– Will not take away any potential market/earnings from the creator
– No or only a few copies made
– Might take away any potential market/earnings from the creator
– Numerous copies or posted publicly


Got it Don’t got it

If you’re still nervous like me

Keep in mind that if creative work is not copyrighted, it can still be covered under copyright law.  However, the law won’t have any teeth – that is, they can’t sue you. That doesn’t mean you should be a thieving jerk though.

Also remember that ideas can not be copyrighted.  However, once they are put into writing, a drawing or some other tangible form, that work can be copyrighted.

Some helpful resources

  • Creative Commons is a non-profit organization dedicated to making creative works more sharable while protecting their creators. It is an insanely great resource for learning more about copyright, copyrighting your materials, and finding stuff you can use.  Sites such as Flickr, You Tube and Google Images make use of Creative Commons licensing.
  • Google images has an advanced search tool that lets you filter by license. To apply that filter, you first need to search for your image, then go to the settings widget and click advanced search. You can then filter by “usage rights”.  You will need to determine which option here is right for you.
adv search


  •  The Internet Archive is a non-profit internet library that is great for finding stuff that is in the public domain or copyrighted but available to use.  It utilizes the Creative Commons licensing as well. It can take a little work to find what you need here but it has some real gems, especially if you are looking for things like historic speeches.
  • The Articulate Community has a lot of free resources that their staff and users have
    submitted.  I have used several in my work!
  • You may consider a subscription to eLearning Brothers or another site with a large
    media library that meets your needs.  Just be sure to familiarize yourself with their terms of usage (preferably before you purchase a subscription).
  • EDIT: A friend of mine reminded me about Wikipedia Commons, another great source for images, sounds and video.

Phew.  I hope you found this as helpful as I did!  Questions, comments, clarifications?  Leave them below!