We live in a world where everything is easily handed to us by the internet. With just a few clicks of the keyboard, one can discover a wealth of images, videos, and written content related to any topic you can imagine. This vast amount of content is beneficial to eLearning designers, but not everything you see on the internet is free. In this article, we will go through the concept of copyrights and why it’s important to take precautions when using images, videos and written content in your eLearning course.

International Copyright Protection

Copyright protection rules are pretty much the same around the world, mostly due to the existence of international right treaties, the most prominent being the Berne Convention. The treaty states that all countries (more than a hundred of them) must provide copyright protection to authors who are citizens of any of the member countries. The author or creator will have copyright as long as he or she lives plus fifty years and will have automatic copyright without having to file a formal request to secure copyright. Aside from the Berne Convention, the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) Treaty includes a set of requirements that have implications in copyright protection in member countries.

Application of Copyright

Copyright kicks in as soon as an idea is expressed in tangible form. For example, if a material is written down or recorded in some form, such as a book, a musical album or a website, it is copyrighted. It occurs in both published and unpublished material, and also affects electronic material. In short, all forms of documented expression or works, is protected by a copyright. eLearning makes use of the following categories of copyrighted “works”: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, films, and sound recordings. Here are examples of copyrighted work that are usually included in an eLearning course content:

  • Literary works include books, journals, articles, short stories, poems, song lyrics and computer programs.
  • Dramatic works include plays, television, radio and film scripts.
  • Musical works include musical scores and notated music.
  • Artistic works include illustrations, images, photographs, maps, graphics, charts and infographics.
  • Films include documentaries, TV programs, feature and animated films.
  • Sound recordings include vinyl records, compact disc, audiotapes, cassettes and mp3 files.

Use of Digital Assets

An engaging and effective eLearning course cannot be without digital assets. Digital assets include photography, logos, illustrations, animations, audiovisual media, presentations, spreadsheets, word documents, e-mails, websites, and other digital formats including their metadata. These assets despite being available for download in various websites on the internet are not without legal implications. A responsible eLearning designer should be able to categorize a digital asset and use it accordingly. Aside from being copyrighted, a digital asset can be under public domain, royalty-free, and creative commons. Public domain assets can be used without permission from the owner, meaning they are copyright-free. This is so because their copyright has either expired or been given up by the owner, creator or author. You can freely use the work in any way that you like without any liability, including commercial use. Copyrighted materials can be obtained from stock asset websites upon paying a license fee. Paying the fee does not mean owning the asset, but it allows one to use the asset under a specific set of conditions. Stock assets websites charge either a one-time fee to download a single asset (image or video clip) or a monthly or yearly subscription fee to download a number of assets within the subscription period. The permissions and rights that come with the license purchase is usually stated in the terms and condition of sale. It’s quite normal for these licenses to include the right to use the asset, but not for profit. Royalty-free assets are also copyrighted in a sense, because they are not in the public domain. A lot digital asset users might have the impression that “royalty free” means that the asset is free, but that is not correct. Royalty free means that one needs to pay a one-time fee or a subscription fee to “unlock” the asset and they are given the freedom to use it however they would like. If an eLearning designer is creating a course that will be sold commercially, royalty images are the best way to go. Creative commons is another category for digital assets. It has become popular with eLearning designers because it is normally free, but on the condition that the creator or author gets credited for their work. The only price to pay for creative common images, videos, and music is attribution to the original owner.

Avoiding Copyright Infringement in eLearning

Infringement of intellectual property protection such as copyright is punishable by hefty fines and sometimes, even jail time. In plenty of publicized infringement cases, the dent on the infringing party’s (individual or entire company) reputation is even bigger than the monetary loss. It’s important for eLearning designers to exercise caution when using non-original work on their courses.

  1. Know that there are ways for owners to know that your used their work. – Content- driven companies have already devised ways to discover infringement on their sites. For instance, YouTube uses algorithm to detect music infringement upon download.
  2. Read conditions set by original creators. – A lot of creators are generous enough to share their work for free. However, it is the eLearning designer’s responsibility to know how they would like to be credited for their work. These terms are normally found in a license that appears upon download.
  3. Look for fair use.—Fair use, an exception to copyright infringement laws, allows the use of copyrighted material without securing permission from the original creator. Some examples of fair use are critique, commentary, news reporting, instruction (including copies for classroom use), scholarship, and research.
  4. Use links to materials available on a website. – One good way to use third party content without legal implications is linking to other sites. It’s important to avoid “deep linking” or linking directly to an image or a video because it bypasses the homepage of the creator, which gives context to the material.
  5. When it comes to using third party materials, ignorance of intellectual property rights is not an acceptable excuse. The key to avoiding copyright -related hiccups in eLearning development is to be naturally curious about the source of third party materials you are using and to give credit where it’s due.