A higher education on lawlessness: Are some colleges teaching disregard for copyright law?

Posted on 08-05-2016 by

Ivory towers should keep flawless law.

Some don’t.

Take a step over the higher ed line, and some laws start to unravel.

Free speech?

Herd yourself to a designated "zone."

Social media?

Strap on your Twitter muzzle.

Copyright protection?

In our digital world, this last question can get slippery, the answers blurred.

GIFs: Colleges Should Tread Lightly

Many colleges stumble through social media marketing, sharing mundane, bulletin-board material. These sterile banalities, for the most part, look like this:

  • There’s still time to [insert campus event]!
  • Get ready for [insert campus event]!
  • We hope to see you soon at [insert campus event]!

But a light bulb flicks on once in a while. The marketing vanilla gets shelved, and in its place, a college recruits with creativity.

Take this college for example.* It got creative with its Twitter campaign. In the form of GIFs (below), it shared a laundry list of famous movie/television scenes:

Or this college admissions blog, which posted Taylor Swift GIFs: 

Or these House GIFs, which sit on another admissions website:

The legal problem is that GIFs sit in a copyright haze, lost in the void between fair use and infringement. As Michelle Panzironi points out in Forbes:

The [legal] trouble lies in using someone else’s original content to create and share a GIF. This usage undermines the copyright owner’s ability to control derivatives of their work, where or how their work is shared, and their right to receive proceeds.**

The law gets even murkier when a GIF features a celebrity without express permission.

According to Panzironi, case law has yet to weigh in on GIFs. For the average Joe, this “question-without-an-answer” is a legal green light to continue posting GIFs.  

But for higher education, does this green light point toward the wrong road?

When Strict Standards Go Slack

When colleges use GIFs (assuming permission is lacking), the trickle down lesson is that students can freely use GIFs. A nod is given, and the trap is set. Infringement, or the accusation thereof, is the last link in the chain, possibly ending with the student.  

But everyone’s doing it ....

But there’s a gray area ....

Rebuttals, yes.

But for a university, no.

Again, ivory towers should keep flawless law.

This is especially so in the intellectual property space, which is tightly engrafted into the college space. Colleges keep flawless law when it comes to their intellectual property, often going on the offensive to defend patents, copyrights, trademarks and logos.

And let’s not forget copyright’s ugly cousin – plagiarism: it’s often branded the lowest of the student lows. For college students, plagiarism warnings are aplenty. As one anonymous professor noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Search your campus website for information about plagiarism, and you’ll find plenty of it. ... [I]t focuses on students — defining for them what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and what penalties await should they copy from a source without attribution.

An example of this; Harvard's rigid plagiarism warning:

Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources. ...  Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely.

Under this policy, a single, uncited quote crosses the plagiarism line. Even if unintentional, few colleges, if any, are going to overlook this lack of “great care.”

Colleges Owe Copyrights Caution (strictly speaking) 

In using GIFs, colleges should abide by their own strict standards. While GIFs sit in legal limbo, colleges (borrowing from Harvard) “should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources.”

This means that middle-of-the-road, even if okay for average Joes, isn't okay for higher education. 

This means weighing on the side of owners and their protected works.

This means keeping flawless copyright law in the digital/social media age.


*These colleges will remain anonymous to protect any student writers/work study contributors. 

**Don't believe this is a real issue? Well, it's real enough for the International Olympic Committee, which is cracking down on Olympic GIFs

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