October 27, 2021 / Abby Roberts

An AIHA Content Creator's Guide to Copyright

Are you interested in hosting a webinar through AIHA University or presenting at AIHce? Or are you preparing more in-depth material for a professional development course (PDC) or a publication?

Regardless of what content creation channel you pursue, you’ll want to make your content as helpful, informative, and engaging as possible, possibly by including diagrams, photos and graphics, embedded videos, and excerpts from other publications. Including such content can help learners understand the concepts you’re discussing and boost audience engagement, but there may be consequences to using material that you don’t hold the copyright to. Therefore, you may benefit from understanding some essential terms, concepts, and best practices related to intellectual property and copyright.

Intellectual property is a category of property that refers to “intangible creations of the mind,” also called “creative works.” A “creative” work, however, doesn’t need to be artistic or entertaining, like an oil painting, novel, or feature film. A magazine article is also a creative work. So is a YouTube video, a tweet, a photo posted on the internet, or a blog post such as this one.

Many, but not all, creative works are legally protected by copyright, which is applied automatically to new creative works, including those published online and in print. Copyright grants the copyright holder the exclusive right to produce, publish, sell, or distribute copies of a creative work. If you want to use a creative work that is protected by copyright, you must first obtain permission from the party that owns the copyrights. Often, this is the original creator, the person or group that first produced the work, but they may relinquish copyright to another person or organization, such as an employer or publisher.

Copyright law in the United States is complex, and potential legal consequences for violating copyright range from receiving a notice to take down copyrighted content posted on the internet to fines and legal action. It is best practice to assume that any material you find online or in print that you do not own is copyrighted unless otherwise stated. If you wish to use or reference the material, you may do so after obtaining formal, written permission from the copyright holder. In some circumstances, this is as simple as emailing an individual creator, but many larger organizations have official processes for obtaining permission to use and distribute copyrighted works. Look for a section on the organization’s website called “licensing,” “copyright,” “terms of use,” “terms of service,” or “legal,” or use the “contact us” feature. The organization may require you to pay for permission.

Even if you helped create a work, you may need to obtain permission if it was published by someone else, such as in the case of a book or article. In this case, obtain permission from the publisher.

All requests for permission must include, in writing, information about how the work will be used, such as in a webinar, book, or video; an estimate of the number of people who will use it, rounding up; and, if you’re creating educational content for AIHA, a request to grant the association the right to use and distribute the content in perpetuity: that is, for an unlimited amount of time. It’s critical that AIHA has permission to distribute content for years to come. Keep records of permissions you obtain and provide them to AIHA.

In some circumstances, it is possible to use and distribute a creative work that you don’t own the copyright for, but you must be certain that these circumstances apply to you. Under U.S. law, fair use is a legal defense against copyright infringement that permits limited use of copyrighted material without the copyright owner’s permission, but it applies most often to material used in news reporting, parody, and public education, not in commercial settings. While much of AIHA’s content is produced for the purposes of education and information, fair use does not apply as AIHA will be selling the content you provide unless otherwise stated.

Another alternative to requesting permission for copyrighted content is using works that fall under the public domain, to which no exclusive intellectual copyrights apply. These rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or be inapplicable. Works created by the U.S. government are public domain by default; the United Kingdom has a similar law called “open government license.” Every book published before 1926 is also in the public domain in the U.S. Online archives exist that collect written works and images in the public domain, such as Project Gutenberg, a library of thousands of free ebooks, and Unsplash, a provider of stock images. Internet Archive, which offers books, movies, software, music, and more; and Wikimedia Commons, another collection of images and graphics, are other possible sources, but remember to confirm the copyright or licensing information on these resources. It’s best practice to cite all resources found in the public domain.

Additionally, some copyright-protected content may be available for use and distribution under a Creative Commons license, often under the condition that you cite the original source under specific guidelines. Works under Creative Commons licenses are specifically marked as such. Regardless of a work’s status—protected by copyright, under a Creative Commons license, in the public domain, and so on—and even if you’re the copyright holder, AIHA requires you to cite all content you intend to use and provide these citations in a resources section. Not only is it ethical to credit other creators, but citations also help your audience in their own research or educational efforts.

AIHA provides additional information related to copyright, including a recommended citations style, on its new copyright guidance webpage and Copyright Guidance Document (PDF). AIHA also now requires the association’s content creators to complete the Copyright Agreement Form (PDF), which guarantees to AIHA that signers understand their obligations under copyright laws and can provide evidence of necessary permissions obtained. With other creators’ legal and ethical rights safeguarded, developing content with AIHA presents opportunities to educate your colleagues, build up your status as an occupational health and safety expert, and stretch your creative muscles.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant for The Synergist.


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