Get right with copyrights, part 2

Sometimes it feels as if you can’t do anything without stealing some copyright owner’s material. Don’t worry, you can keep communications fresh, beautiful, and smart without becoming an intellectual pickpocket.

We’ve already considered whether it’s right to use someone else’s work without their agreement, how much wiggle room our organizations have, and what creative output is covered by copyright law. Let’s go more deeply into that last item and discuss how to go about communications legally and ethically.

The law says…

Copyright protections apply to “original works of authorship”, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. […] Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, title, principle, or discovery. Similarly, names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, and listings of contents or ingredients are not subject to copyright.”

We must acknowledge creative ownership, even if we have permission to re-use. Cite the copyright symbol ©, a lowercase “c” in a circle, the year first published, and the name of the copyright owner. Any owner may ask for additional information in the citation.

This is true even if the original creator did not affix a copyright notice to his or her work.

Even seemingly free-to-use material may have citation requirements or may be available only for some sorts of use. For example, Wikimedia Commons publishes three use categories:

  • Free to use or share: OK to copy or redistribute its content if the content remains unchanged.
  • Free to use, share, or modify: OK to copy, modify, or redistribute in ways specified in the license.
  • Commercial use: be sure to select an option that includes the word “commercially.”

Get permission to use

Ask. It never hurts. It often works.

Write, email, or call, remembering that you’re the beggar and they’re the benefactor. Have these facts ready and succinct:

  • My organization is NAME, CITY, STATE, if true: a nonprofit or charitable organization that works in INDUSTRY
  • I am NAME, plus what qualifies you to ask on behalf of your organization
  • I would like to use clearly-identified CREATION
  • In this way
  • How many times you will use, on what date or dates
  • I will attribute the CREATION with this language, or in any way you prefer. I will send you a sample of use as soon as it’s released.
  • Whether your use of CREATION is connected with earning or soliciting money
  • Ask for permission to use without paying royalty.


Quantities of text, images, and sound are in the public domain. Anything that has fallen out of copyright – or whose creator has specified it’s for public use – is fine to quote, play, or reproduce.

You can sort Google search results by “free to use,” using an advanced search process.

Other sources (images):

See this article for free image sources.

This information applies to U.S. copyright law. Each country has its own terms.

Please comment and object:, 520-954-0266.