Protecting Yourself and Your Students from Copyright Infringement

I recently attended a seminar led by Mark Konecny, Scholarly Communications Strategist with the University of Cincinnati Libraries. His topic: How instructors and students can avoid copyright infringement and the hassles and cost that come with it.

The first important thing I learned: It is very easy now for companies to find anyone who is using their material (ads, data, words, tables, photos, videos) without their permission. The reason is that numerous web crawlers are available whose sole purpose is to trawl the web for images and other material that is being illegally used. Mark told of a bar in Machu Picchu that had had a picture of Mickey Mouse on its wall for decades. Recently, though, the bar owner was approached by a copyright attorney, ordered to take down the image, and slapped with a steep fine. If you are using others’ media without their permission, they will find you and take you down!

The next important thing I learned: Material that is being borrowed for education purposes and is “inward facing”—that is, not pointed out toward the public—requires much less permission-seeking that material that is “outward facing.”

Using Others’ Material in Inward-Facing Educational Media

The Educational Fair Use Guidelines (first created in 1976) and the T.E.A.C.H. Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002) spell out the circumstances in which material borrowed for the classroom—whether face-to-face or virtual–can be used without permission. When considering copyright infringement cases related to teaching, judges will consider these four factors:

  • The purpose and character of your use. If the material is being used within/for the classroom, you should cite the origin of the material to avoid plagiarism, though that won’t be a sufficient safeguard against being charged for copyright infringement. To be safe on those grounds, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are making educational use of the material by integrating it into your teaching lesson, which is viewed as “transforming” the work from a piece of property into a means of teaching. (So, for example, you could include a clip from a movie or an ad in your bcomm class if you analyze it, draw a lesson from it, make a point with it, or otherwise incorporate it into a course topic or assignment.)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. The key factors here are whether the work is factual or artistic/creative/fictional and whether it has been published or not. Factual works have looser restrictions because their contents are considered beneficial to the public. Published works also have looser restrictions than unpublished work because the author of unpublished work needs greater protection from theft of the material. But you should not be casual about using any copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the general idea is that you’re better off copying less than more. For example, you might include a few pages or visuals from a publication but not a whole chapter. That said, if you post a pdf of an article or chapter on your school’s course management system (e.g., Blackboard) and your school’s library has already paid for your access to this material, you should be on fairly safe ground. Certainly you will also be on safe ground if you include links to whole books in your library’s e-brary. On the other hand, if you print out hard copies for your students and charge them for the copying cost, that would probably be too commercial for a judge’s taste.
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market. In no way should your use of others’ material rob them of the just rewards for their work. Do not share with students any material that they would otherwise need to pay for. If you want to show a movie or part of a movie in your class, for example, it’s best to buy the DVD yourself and show it. Next best is inserting a link to the clip in your course assignment or PowerPoint slide. Not as good is streaming the movie, and not good is downloading the movie for free and showing this copy to your class. Same for music. As The T.E.A.C.H. Act says, all copies used must be lawfully made copies. And those copies need to have a specific, short life.

These same guidelines apply to your students if they are incorporating others’ material into their assignments and sharing them with others in the class. If, on the other hand, their work will be made public in any way, in the form of posters, videos, websites, brochures, or other outward-facing media, the guidelines get much more strict.

Using Others’ Material in Outward-Facing Media

When access to other’s materials is not limited to those being used in a course, the borrowing game becomes much more dangerous. Here, one must rigorously honor copyright notices and request permission to use any borrowed material that is not considered to be in the public domain.

For example, if you or your students use Google Images to find the perfect image for a presentation, poster, brochure, or website, you must go to the source of the image and try to get permission. The rights holder will probably specify the way he/she wants the source to be credited.

Same with graphs from eMarketer, blog posts from Forbes, copyrighted music, and other material you might want to use in an educational but outward-facing way.

Sometimes these sources will say no; sometimes they will say yes; sometimes they will say yes but with restrictions and/or payment.

Finding Permission-Free Photos, Videos, and Other Materials

Some publishers of media that you may want to use will allow you to use it with minimal or no permission.

Some examples:

  • YouTube says that you can put “the occasional YouTube video in your blog to comment on it or show your readers a video that you like, even if you have general-purpose ads somewhere on your blog.” (If you’re creating a YouTube video that uses copyrighted material, though, you must get the owner’s permission to avoid the risk of getting a take-down notice.) To find music that it’s ok to use without permission in your video, read about the YouTube Audio Library.


  • Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that, in their words, gives “everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is . . . a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.” Content creators on Wikipedia, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and other platforms are given the option of licensing works with CC licenses, and many other creators simply go to CC and upload work that they are fine with sharing. The creators select what kind of licensing they want to have govern the re-use of the work and, as long the re-user meets the terms of the license for the photo or he/she wants to use, the re-use is fair. Some copyright holders, like Shutterstock, will charge you a (usually small) fee to download/use an image; others will allow free use, even commercial use, if the sources is attributed, while others forbid commercial use; and others will say “free for commercial use; no attribution required.”


  • Unsplash offers a wide range of photos that are “licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer.” (Thanks to Heather Smith for telling me about this resource.)


  • Morguefile is “a community-based free photo site, and all photos found in the Morguefile archive are free for you to download and re-use in your work, be it commercial or not.” (Thanks again, Heather.)


  • Pixabay offers images and videos that have been “released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.” (Yet again, thank you, Heather.)


The Bottom Line

With copyright-infringement crawlers now searching the web for infringements, you and your students must take the ownership of materials seriously. Universities are required by law to post copyright guidelines, like these from my school. If there is any chance that your intended use of the material may incur a take-down notice (and possibly a heavy fine), consult with knowledgeable personnel at your school. (See Paula’s post “Classroom Resources: Copyright Law” for additional online guides.)

Can Your Students Interpret Numbers?

A popular saying in business is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While more businesses these days are relying on intuition and core values as well, it’s true that businesses have to have reliable numbers to be able to stay in business.

This makes it a good idea to give our students at least one assignment in which they need to present and interpret numerical data. I’ve been surprise lately, though, by how poorly my business writing students do this. Perhaps I’m getting a bit of a false read because most of the students in our Writing for Business classes are marketing, IT, and management majors (the students in the more numbers-based majors aren’t required to take this course). If my sample is skewed, I hope you’ll still find the following tips useful.

But first, here’s the situation that prompted me to write this post. The class had been assigned a report-writing task that involved interpreting data from a customer-satisfaction survey for a health clinic. One of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate the accuracy the bills they received from the billing office. The answers are shown in this graph:

UN 11.6 billing graph

To my consternation, all but about three of the students interpreted these results as positive! They looked at the columns, saw that the biggest ones were to the left, and thus deduced that the results were pretty good. So we had a discussion about context. Sixty people said their bills were never right? And another 140 said almost never? And another 319 said sometimes? I asked the class how many times they’d need to get an erroneous bill before seriously considering changing healthcare providers. Or how many phone calls to the billing office were probably being generated by this problem. Then they began to get it.

I see what happened as part of a larger issue: Our students are hesitant to think. They’re terrified of making mistakes, and they don’t realize that, to do well on their jobs, they have to problem solve, use their judgment, and put their ideas out there. This is especially the case when they’re asked to interpret information.

For the benefit of future classes, I drew up this list of tips for interpreting and commenting on numbers:

  • Consider the context. Findings that are positive in some situations could be alarmingly bad in others. Figure out what the numbers mean in terms of the problem you’re investigating.
  • Calculate percentages. Often it’s easier for readers to wrap their minds around percentages rather than raw numbers. So, instead of saying “245 strongly agreed” (out of 400), say “61.2% (245) strongly agreed.” (Formula: Divide the number of responses by the total number of participants.)
  • Combine categories of responses when that will be helpful. For example, if you’ve asked respondents to choose an answer on a five-point scale, with the two positive answers at one end of the scale and the negative ones at the other end, it may be more helpful to compare the total number of positive responses to the total number of negative ones than to call attention to just the most positive and most negative answers.
  • Use “majority” correctly. It means “more than half.” It doesn’t mean “those who chose the most popular response” (unless those who voted for the most popular response account for more than half of the respondents). Better yet, try to use more specific wording, such as “just over half” or “the large majority.”
  • Use “average” accurately. “Average” means the median response. (Formula: Add all the responses or ratings and then divide them by the total number.) You cannot say “the average response was ‘sometimes'” when what you really mean is that it was the most common response (the mode).
  • Use the word “most” with care. “Most” doesn’t really have a uniform meaning, but it needs to refer to quite a high percentage of the responses. You would not be justified in saying that “most” respondents chose an answer if only 61% of the respondents chose it. If 85% or more chose it, your use of this word would probably be acceptable.

I realize that this isn’t a very ambitious list. But I hope its overall effect will be to make my students more thoughtful and accurate when reporting numerical data, and I hope it will be of some use to your students as well. If you have tips to add to this list, or have a different way altogether of helping students interpret numbers, please share them.


Classroom Resources: Copyright Law

Every semester when my students and I talk about citing sources, we discuss the difference between citing sources and having permission to use information, visuals, or other artifacts in their work.

Of course, when writing a paper, developing a presentation, or creating other work for their classes, students can usually just cite the source to sufficiently acknowledge others’ work. However, when students enter their professional careers or even when they work on behalf of student organizations, it is often not enough to cite the source when they use others’ work; copyright law requires that they must also have permission to use the work (e.g., using others’ company logos in a flyer for a student organization fundraiser).  This distinction between citing a source and having permission to use the work is one that is tricky for some students (undergraduates and MBAs alike) to understand.

Fortunately, the folks at Educational Technology and Learning provide “7 Outstanding Web Resources for Teachers and Students to Learn about Copyright Issues.” Among these sources are Teach Copyright, Copyright Advisory Network, Center for Social Media, Copyright Confusion, Creative Commons, Copyright 101 for Educators, and Teachers First.

The best part? You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the information! If you have other resources, please share them with us.

Classroom Talking Point: “Job Seekers Getting Asked for Facebook Passwords”

I saw the link to the Associated Press article “Job Seekers Getting Asked for Facebook Passwords” in my Facebook news feed from a local television station.

My first thoughts were 1) Who would think that it’s acceptable to ask for someone’s password? and 2) Who would give up his/her password? Then I thought about my students—vulnerable 20-somethings in a job interview, clearly in no position of authority and just wanting to land some gainful employment.

We already know students need to be careful in many ways when it comes to their social networking practices. This is just one more topic to add to the list. My students and I will be talking about this article in class on Monday, and I thought you might be interested in having the same discussion with your students. Is this ethical? What should students do if they are asked to surrender their passwords? We definitely live in some interesting times.

Help with Teaching Information Literacy Skills

Earlier this year the University of Cincinnati’s library staff polled our faculty about the information literacy skills they wanted their students to develop. Based on the responses, the librarians developed a website that provides an extensive array of materials on this topic.

I have their permission to share the site’s address with you—it’s

What is information literacy?

As the site says,

“The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) defines information literacy as a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.'”

What’s involved in teaching information literacy?

Though the specific answer will vary from discipline to discipline, the site’s main tabs suggest that such instruction will include guidance on the following:

  • Framing the research question and identifying sources of information,
  • Identifying keywords for a search and planning a search strategy,
  • Evaluating sources, and
  • Organizing and presenting information effectively and using it ethically/legally.

The site also offers . . .

  • Tips for constructing research-related assignments, and
  • Tips for making one’s information-literacy instruction more effective.

Of course, since these materials are intended for the whole university, some of them are only marginally relevant to bcomm. For example, the advice that an effective assignment should “introduce students to the literature of a discipline” wouldn’t apply very often to our courses. And many of the sample assignments, tutorials, and tips are better for “choose-a-topic” type assignments than for the scenario-based assignments that we usually give.

But much of what’s here can easily be adapted to the bcomm classroom, and quite a bit of it is usable “off the shelf.” It can definitely help make your next research assignment more effective.

If you explore the site, please let us know what you think of it (UC’s librarians would love the feedback, too) and add any additional tips you have for increasing students’ information literacy in bcomm.

Do You Pay Attention to Boring Things? … Re-thinking the Essential Syllabus

This week’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Tom Pickering, adjunct assistant professor, Pierce College, Washington. Thank you, Tom, for this interesting and creative way of thinking about how we communicate with our students. If you have a topic you’d like to write about for this blog, please contact us.

… “The brain is as adaptive as Silly Putty. With years of reading books, writing e-mail, and sending text messages, you might think the visual system could be trained to recognize common words without slogging through tedious additional steps of letter-feature recognition. But that is not what happens. No matter how experienced a reader you become, you will stop and ponder individual textual features as you plow through these pages, and you will do so until you can’t read anymore.”

The preceding quote is from Brain Rules by John Medina and specifically, Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses, wherein we tend to learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.

Ten minutes is about all you get with students in class before their attention span diminishes and the nomadic digital habit takes over in the absence of an interactive instructional focus. You either embrace or compete with iPads, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting, cell phones, and more. I can relate to this, and I say embrace!

If your syllabus, like mine, has too much inefficient text and is boring, maybe it is time to re-think the text syllabus and consider a visual syllabus, one that is congruous with the digital elixir du jour.

We would like to know if you have a visual syllabus or are interested in developing one and what ideas you might have that would make your syllabus a curious read by students.

Data visualization is becoming popular and has allied application to the classroom to supplement and complement PowerPoint and videos. Below are some resources that might be helpful in re-thinking the possibilities to re-tool your syllabus.


  • 3-page visual syllabus example  
  • Many Eyes: IBM site that enables you to create data visualization through data sets, either your own, or existing
  • A fun site and tool for generating “word clouds” from text; color and font choices are extensive, and I have used this site for displaying a course overview and for showing students how to create a cloud resume
  • Good links to information graphics relevant to online learning
  • Data visualization with a global perspective on business and social issues
  • Smashing Magazine: Good source for ideas and resources on data mining
  •  Social Times: Information on how to create a social resume to help students with job search techniques—important considering that employers look for digital footprints of prospective employees
  • Blog with the best examples of data visualization and infographics; subscribing will provide you with a new example every day
  • Mashable: Pictorial summary of how students use technology
  • Pam Dyer’s blog on the use of Facebook and Twitter for marketing, advertising, branding and engagement.
  • Content Maven: This site will take some time, but there are great presentation tools embedded, especially the graphic on Starbucks and Coca-Cola #90—beware of sensory overload)
  • Kawasaki, Guy. Enchantment. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.Print. Kawasaki is a prolific writer and blogger with keen sense of use of social media (see also and
  • Medina, John. Brain Rules. Seattle, Pear Press, 2009. Print. This book has been instrumental for me in course and syllabi development; it explains a lot of behavioral patterns with a few “a ha” moments (see also  

“When you enchant people, your goal is not to make money from them or to get them to do what you want, but to fill them with great delight” (Enchantment, Guy Kawasaki).

Perhaps your visual syllabus will become a great delight, generate attention, and be less boring than the essential text one. Re-think a new type of syllabus and share your results with us.

Visual Rhetoric in the Business Communication Classroom

Simply put, visual rhetoric is the use of visuals and visual elements (e.g., fonts and color) to communicate a message. If you are teaching your students how to create visually appealing messages, you are already incorporating visual rhetoric in your bcomm classroom. If you want to extend that discussion of visual rhetoric beyond the use of appropriate margins and headings, here are some resources that may help.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides several pages on visual rhetoric that address topics such as understanding the concept of visual rhetoric, choosing fonts, placing elements on a page, and using color theory.

My other favorite sources include the following:

    • John McWade’s books Before and After: How to Design Cool Stuff and Before and After Page Design (The information and examples on typography are particularly fantastic in Before and  After Page Design, but really, I could spend hours looking at and talking about all of the examples in both books.)

There are also quite literally hundreds of scholarly publications available on the topic. Some that you may find helpful in exploring theoretical and pedagogical perspectives on visual rhetoric and visual rhetoric in business professions include

    • Brumberger, Eva R. “Visual Rhetoric in the Curriculum: Pedagogy for a Multimodal Workplace.” Business Communication Quarterly 68 (2005): 318-333, print.
    • Campelo, Adriana, Robert Aitken and Juergen Gnoth. “Visual Rhetoric and Ethics in Marketing of Destinations.” Journal of Travel Research 50 (2011): 3-14, print.
    • Davison, Jane. “Icon, Iconography, Iconology: Visual Branding, Banking, and the Case of the Bowler Hat.” Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability Journal 22.6 (2009): 883-906, print.
    • Lauer, Claire and Christopher A. Sanchez. “Visuospatial Thinking in the Professional Writing Classroom.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25 (2011): 184-218, print.

Discussing visual rhetoric early in your course and adding a “visual rhetoric” category to a grading rubric are great ways to reinforce the importance of visually appealing and accessible documents. If you have sources on visual rhetoric or suggestions on how to teach and assess students’ use and understanding of visual rhetoric, please share them with us.