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Trends in High School Media

An online publication of the National Scholastic Press Association

Press law's (very) frequently asked questions

By Mike Hiestand

Calling these Frequently Asked Questions doesn't really do them justice. These are the current Eveready Energizer Bunny questions for student media. They are asked, and asked, and asked.

Q. We're reviewing a new movie (or a new CD, video game, TV show, book, etc.). Can we use an image from the Internet as an illustration?

A. Yes, but you have to be selective. As a general rule, most of material that you find online -- whether it's a photo, a story, music, etc. -- is protected by copyright. If you want to use it, you'll first need to obtain permission from the copyright owner (which may or may not be the operator of the website where you find the material).

There is, however, one important exception called Fair Use. The Fair Use Exception allows student journalists to use limited portions of otherwise copyrighted material without permission when engaged in news reporting or when publishing commentary or reviews.

To qualify, the copyrighted material that you use must be very closely tied to a news story or survey, commentary or review. For example, in reviewing the latest Julia Robert's movie, the Fair Use Exception would allow you to use a single framed scene from the movie or a scaled down image of the movie's promotional material (for example, the movie poster) taken from the movie's official website to illustrate your review. (The same thing would allow you to scan a small image of a CD cover to illustrate your review of that CD.) Likewise, when Charles Schulz died, newspapers across the country lawfully used a small image of Charlie Brown or some other famous Peanuts character to illustrate their news story about his death. In such cases, there is a sufficiently close connection between the movie review or the news story and the copyrighted material. Without the review or the news story, however, you could not simply paste a downloaded photo of Julia or Snoopy into your publication because you had empty space to fill.

Fair Use would also not apply if you were to use a candid photo of Julia Roberts from People Magazine or some other third party's website that is unconnected to the movie you're reviewing. The candid photo of Julia Roberts taken by a People Magazine photographer really has nothing to do with the movie and would likely not qualify as a Fair Use. If you want to use it, you'd need to obtain People Magazine's permission.

Similarly, if you wanted to publish a photo of a current news event, such as a terrorist bombing, you could not just go to the online edition of The New York Times and download one of their copyrighted photos to illustrate your article. The photo depicts the news, but it is not the news itself and you can't make a Fair Use claim. If, however, you were you doing a story on how the news media covers terrorism, you could probably make a Fair Use claim for publishing a scaled down version of the entire front page of The New York Times , including the photo, to show how the newspaper placed the story. In such a case, the photo itself would be part of the news.

Q. Can I use copyrighted material (online or otherwise) if I properly credit the source?

A. Simply giving credit (for example, "Photo courtesy of People.com ") usually isn't enough. Unless you can make a Fair Use argument, as discussed above, or unless you're certain that material is not protected by copyright (for example, works created by the federal government and older works whose copyright have expired are not protected) you must obtain permission -- preferably in writing -- from the copyright owner before using the material. Of course, once you obtain permission, good journalism also demands that you accurately credit the source. �

Q. We want to use soap opera titles, such as "Days of our Lives," to head our yearbook sections. Any problems?

A. This question has many popular variants. For example, can we use book titles (Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go" is a perennial favorite) as our yearbook theme? Can we use movie titles (for example, "The Sound of Music" to head the band section)? Can we use names of popular songs? Can we use advertising slogans as section headers (Nike's "Just Do It" must have been in every yearbook in the country a few years back)? The answer to all of these questions is "yes" -- as long as you do it right.

The U.S. Copyright Office has determined that certain categories of material cannot be copyrighted because they lack the necessary creativity. Among them: names, titles, short phrases, expressions or catchwords, slogans and mottoes. NBC, for example, cannot copyright the bare, unadorned words, "days of our lives," and you are free to use them as a section header, a yearbook title or anyplace else without obtaining NBC's permission. However, NBC does own the rights to the daytime soap opera, "Days of Our Lives," and if you want to use other material from the show, such as photos of cast members, scripts, or the show's hourglass logo, that material is copyrighted and (unless you can make a Fair Use claim, as discussed above) you'll need to obtain permission from NBC.

For more information on these and other copyright law issues, see the SPLC's "Student Media Guide to Copyright Law," available on the SPLC website at: www.splc.org.

Mike Hiestand is an attorney and works as a legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.

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