Ethical Uses of Information: The Good, the Bad, the Confusing

By Molly Keener, Mary Beth Lock, and Ellen Makaravage

Introduction to Intellectual Property

Photographs. Music. Books. Plays. Architecture. Paintings. Logos. Choreography. Articles. Sculpture. Movies. Slogans. Prescriptions. Machines. All examples of intellectual property. But what about blog posts? YouTube videos? Your term paper? Those too are examples. Intellectual property is encountered daily, usually outside the classroom or library. In fact, almost everyone owns some. And although you usually are not aware of when you are interacting with intellectually property, or what laws govern that interaction, it’s happening.

Intellectual property, in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is defined as law something (such as an idea, invention, or process) that comes from a person’s mind “. Intellectual property is more broadly identified as any work of the mind: an idea, a musical composition, a discovery, a symbol. Intellectual Property is sometimes subject to protection of the law and is manifested as copyright (for fixed works), patents (for inventions) and trademarks (for slogans and logos). PepsiCo’s formula for making Pepsi is intellectual property, as is the Nike swoosh. Not EVERY original thought is considered “intellectual property.” This chapter will explain the basics of intellectual property, how it is protected, and how you can ethically interact with it to advance your academic and creative endeavors.

Intellectual Property: The Good

Intellectual property is protected:

  • To acknowledge that the process of creation is important;
  • To allow the creator to benefit professionally or financially;
  • To allow the creator to control his or her reputation;
  • To encourage others to continue to create; and,
  • To give owners the right to decide how their intellectual property is used, copied or distributed FOR A LIMITED TIME.

It is protected either by copyright, trademark or patent law.


Copyright gives legal protection to new works of writing, choreography, music, visual art, film, and architectural works. Copyright does NOT protect ideas, facts, titles, data, or useful articles (this last is covered by patent). Copyright happens automatically – no registration required – and has few requirements:

  • Original work of authorship;
  • Dash of creativity; and,
  • Fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

This means that once a photograph is taken, blueprints are drawn, or a student saves a term paper, the creator of that work is the fully-vested copyright owner, with all the rights therein.

Rights granted in copyright are actually a bundle of rights, not a singular right. Rights cover reproduction, derivative creation, distribution, public performance, public display, and the right to limit or restrict reuse. This means that to use a copyrighted work, permission from the copyright owner is usually required. Exceptions to this are noted later in this chapter, but it is generally safe to assume that reuse rights are NOT automatically given. Copyright, either in full or in part, can only be given away in writing.

Copyright law was originally conceived to ensure that those who create are given sufficient protection of and compensation for their works. Compensation does not necessarily mean monetary gain, especially in academic scholarship, although that is certainly a possibility. It also was created to clarify registration and acknowledgment of a work and its creator. By granting protection for creation of a work and extending legally-defined benefits to the creator, copyright ideally exists to ensure the continued creation of new works.

American copyright law was first set in the United States Constitution in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts” (#), granting protection to copyright owners for a limited time. In the intervening centuries, copyright law has morphed and expanded to the point where the current term of protection far exceeds what most people would define as “limited.” Current U.S. copyright law states that new works are subject to the following terms:

  • Single author works are life of the author + 70 years – published or not, registered or not;
  • Joint author works are life of all authors + 70 years after death of the last author – published or not, registered or not;
  • Works for hire or anonymous works are 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

Works for hire are created in the course of one’s regular employment – i.e., you write a technical report for your company – when the employer has a policy that clearly stipulates copyright ownership. Most colleges and universities do not claim copyright ownership in articles and books written by faculty or students in the course of scholarship. And simply being paid to write something, such as when independent consultants are contracted to draft reports, does not automatically make the work a “works for hire” in the legal sense.

Using Copyrighted Works: What, When and How

Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of the copyright holder. As mentioned earlier, there are exceptions permitted in the law. We’ll explore those as well as noting works that do not have copyright protection at all.

The Copyright Law of the United States does provide “limitations on exclusive rights.” Under certain circumstances these limitations allow for the use of copyrighted works without the copyright holder’s permission. The limitation that is most relevant to academic use is found in Section 107, Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. This section protects against “infringement of copyright” for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” There are four factors to be considered when determining whether the use of a work qualifies as “fair use“.

  • The purpose – This factor involves consideration of how you intend to use the work. Non-profit, educational and personal uses are more likely considered fair use than those intended to generate a profit.
  • The nature – What type of work are you wanting to use? Nonfiction works are more likely to be considered fair use than fiction. Other considerations are the format of the work and whether the item has been published. Fair use would most likely favor published, printed works.
  • The amount – Using as small a portion of the original work as possible bolsters a fair use defense. However, it is possible that even a small, vital portion of a work can be considered too much. In the case Campbell v. AcuffRose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994), the Supreme Court found that taking the “heart” of the original work had violated copyright law.
  • The effect on the potential market – This factor protects the economic interests of the copyright holder. Since the copyright holder has the right to distribute their work as they choose, a use that affects the current or future profitability would most likely not be considered fair use. (Butler, 2001)

Each time you use a work that has a copyright holder, whether the work is in print, on a website, on a music CD, in a television broadcast or in a movie, you need to consider these four factors. If the principle of fair use seems subjective and vague, you are not alone in that perception. Fair use and copyright law can be intimidating but it is important to exercise your rights.

If fair use does not apply to your use of materials you can try to obtain copyright permission directly from the copyright holder. This can be done by sending a letter or email. If you are not certain who holds the copyright, you can send the request to the last known copyright holder and ask that it be sent to the proper person(s).

If you are working under the auspices of a business or academic institution, they can seek permission from the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) to use works that are under copyright protection. The CCC represents publishers and authors and collects fees in exchange for granting permission for excerpts to be used in articles and websites.

A more recent model for granting permissions can be found at Creative Commons. Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that provides permissions for digital content at no cost to the copyright holder. Various levels of permission are available. One license allows anyone to change a licensed work in any way. The author only requests attribution. The most restrictive license requires not only attribution but forbids all changes or derivative works. The different levels can be explored on the CC website. Creative Commons permissions can be found on websites such as Flickr.

For use of material on an academic database remember that license agreements take precedence over copyright laws. The license agreement can vary depending upon the terms established between the educational institution and the database vendor. Most online databases require you to agree to their license terms before you can view an article. Often there is a notice on a database webpage that states that simply opening the document is considered your acceptance of the license terms. Be sure to check the “Terms and Conditions of Use” for an online database before you share an article.

On a rare occasion, permission to use a book, journal or website can be found in the source itself. Check the copyright page at the front of a book or journal to see if any permission for academic purposes has been granted by the publisher. A website may have a disclaimer also granting permission for academic use.

Some works are not subject to copyright law and are therefore available to be used without those protections. These include items in the public domain, orphan works, and government publications.

Public domain refers to works that can be used outside the provisions of copyright law. This includes works whose copyright has expired. All works published prior to 1923 are now in the public domain. Those published between 1923 and 1963 are also; if there was no copyright notice and no copyright renewal. A copyright holder can choose to deliberately surrender their legal rights and allow their work to be in the public domain. Publications created by the United States government are also not covered by copyright law. State and local government works can vary so the publisher should be contacted. Works that have no copyright date should not be assumed to be in the public domain. (Butler, 2001)

Orphan works are those which are still covered under copyright law but the owner of the copyright cannot be located or in some cases, cannot be determined. In light of this, it is not possible to obtain permission to use the work. The issue of orphan works has gained a lot of publicity due to litigation involving Google’s attempt to digitize these works and include them in their Google Books database. Until legislation settles this issue, uses of these works may be best limited to those clearly allowable under the principles of fair use as defined in copyright law.


Trademark protection is granted to intellectual property that identifies a particular item. Trademark covers slogans, logos and brand names. Protection must be applied for, and subsequently renewed; it does not happen automatically when a slogan or logo is created, unlike works covered by copyright law. However, trademark protection can be renewed or maintained indefinitely.

To understand a bit more about how trademark does and does not apply, watch this talk on fashion design: Hence why you find knock-off designs of expensive clothes at big box stores. Also, while trademark covers a chain restaurant’s name and logo when used together, the recipes prepared in the kitchen are not protected. Other items that cannot be covered by trademark (nor copyright or patent) law are magic tricks, cars, jokes, and furniture – all are considered utilitarian designs.


Patent protection is granted to intellectual property that is deemed a useful article. This covers a wide range of products, from bottle design to machines (whole or independent parts) to prescription drugs to asexually derived plants (think Genetically Modified Organisms). Patents cannot be renewed, and protection is set for a limited time. This is good and bad. It is good because it means that the inventor, sometimes individuals but often corporations, get exclusive financial benefit during the life of the patent. It is also good because it means that eventually others can replicate the articles and offer less-expensive versions.

However, there are bad sides to patent protection. Agriculture companies that sell seed for GMO products, such as corn, not only control the cost of the seed, but also which fertilizers and pesticides can be used, as the plants are bred to work only with company-provided products. Additionally, GMO seeds produce plants with seeds that cannot be replanted; they are asexual plants. In the case of prescription drugs, it often means that new drugs that offer better results are quite expensive, as only the name brand is initially available.

Another negative aspect of patent protection in prescription drugs is that in order to protect revenue, pharmaceutical companies will sometimes only slightly alter the chemical compound of a soon-to-expire patented drug, file a new patent, and continue to reap the financial benefits of patent protection. This happened in the early 2000s when AstraZenica was set to lose protection for the highly successful Prilosec (used to treat ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease), and the company released Nexium, the new “little purple pill” that was almost an exact chemical mirror of Prilosec. Read more at

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, patent law serves to stimulate innovation and reward inventors, including those working in labs on college and university campuses, and is an important area of intellectual property protection.

Plagiarism & Violation: The Bad

Plagiarism is defined in MerriamWebsters online dictionary as: “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something”. Had I not mentioned where I found that information and just passed that definition off to you as though the words were my own, I would have been committing plagiarism! But because I appropriately attributed my source, I am not.

Generally, intellectual property, in order to be protected, must have some sort of commercial value: a design, a unique concept, a formula for a new drug, a written work. The legal protections afforded an individual or a corporation who have a patent, trademark or copyright are only for a limited time. Once that period of time has passed, the item falls into the public domain. The length of time afforded for legal protection for copyrighted, trademarked and patented works differs from country to country. The Digital Copyright Slider can be used to determine if a work you are interested in quoting from is still covered by copyright protection. But even that will only tell you if you need to worry about paying for or requesting permission from a copyright holder for the use of their work. Attribution should be given regardless of the age of the work.

Plagiarism and Copyright Violation are related but are not the same thing. If a student copies an entire section or even a sentence from an existing work, the student has plagiarized that work, even if the book it was lifted from is in the public domain. (Written works published in the United States fall into the public domain after they have been in publication for over 70 years beyond the life of the author.) In this case, the student is guilty of plagiarism, but not a copyright violation. However, this act is still a theft of intellectual property.

When books fall into the public domain and the original author no longer holds copyright, others are allowed to utilize the text without paying copyright fees. This is why there are so many publications, by so many different publishers, of well-known older works. It is also why the entire text of a work can be made available for free in a download from the Kindle store, or through the Project Gutenberg website.

Examples of Common Violations

Taking a sentence or two from a book without attribution to provide just the right turn of phrase to a paper because you can’t think of a way to say it better is a violation of the copyright of the author of the original work.

Taking a unique idea that you’ve read in a journal article, even if you don’t copy the content word for word, and passing the idea off as your own by not providing attribution to the original author is a violation of intellectual property and copyright.

Including a photograph of a work of art meant to illustrate a particular artists work, or a particular period without attributing the book it came from or the website it appeared on is also a violation of copyright.

Including the artwork from an album by your favorite rapper you found on’s website and including it on the cover of your paper on misogynistic lyrics in rap songs is a violation of copyright too.

Students might want to use an image of the Nike swoosh, and the phrase “Just do it” on a t-shirt or sign encouraging people to rush a fraternity or sorority. This is a violation of the Nike trademark.

Creating a mix CD from all of your favorite songs to give out to guests at your party is a violation of copyright. (But, making a mix CD of music that you own for yourself is OK!)

Citations: The Confusing

Why Cite?

Citing your sources does a few very valuable things to your paper. It not only increases the credibility of your claims and impresses your reader with the depth and breadth of your research skills, but it also prevents you from plagiarizing and violating copyright law. Citing sources and providing attribution to scholarly works is the only way to provide the necessary evidence that the work you are providing in written form is your unique collection of thoughts that has been brought forth from your unique collection of resources. Citing should not be considered “cheating” because you are stealing ideas from another individuals work. Instead, it is an opportunity to show that you are standing on the shoulders of giants. You have read and understood their work, and you are ready to forward that thought. Embrace the citation.

What needs a Citation?

Citing your sources in a paper will enable your reader to identify where you got a particular piece of information. Things that are just understood to be true do not need a citation, but anything that might be questioned should be. For example, consider the following paragraph:

(1) Summer time in North Carolina brings with it elevated temperatures, including high temperatures that daily rise into the 90s, or even above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (2) Meteorologists and climatologists who track the temperature fluctuations over time have noted that, of the 10 hottest years on record in North Carolina, six of them have been posted since the year 2001. (3) Global warming is surely to account for this change.

In the above example, the first sentence does not need a citation. It is obviously true. The second sentence needs a citation since it is a factual piece of information that your reader may want assurance that it is true. It is something that requires a reference to an authoritative source. That authoritative source might be the NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) website or it might be something that was read in an article in Time. But to be authoritative, you should not reference that you heard it around the dinner table, even if that is where you first heard it. Hopefully, you’ve done some fact checking to find out that it’s true. That’s called research! (By the way, the author did not do any fact checking on that paragraph above so don’t cite ME as an authoritative source. I’m just using this as illustration.)

The third sentence “Global warming is surely to account for this change.” may not need a citation, especially if the reason for the paper is a persuasive paper meant to convince your readers that global warming is real. Presumably, you’ll be giving many more citations throughout the paper that will explain your position in detail and will back up your claims with many more authoritative sources. Alternatively, if this is a quote, from Al Gore then you should include that sentence in quotes, and include the source for THAT quote.

With citations, it would look something like this:

Summer time in North Carolina brings with it elevated temperatures, including high temperatures that daily rise into the 90s, or even above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Meteorologists and climatologists who track the temperature fluctuations over time have noted that, of the 10 hottest years on record in North Carolina, six of them have been posted since the year 2001. (“NOAA Study”). “Global warming is surely to account for this change” notes Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance. (44)

In the example above, the parenthetical 44 is the page number in the book Earth in the Balance where that quote can be found. If you don’t mention the name of the book in the text of the paragraph, you will need to have the author and the page number in your citation. The third sentence then looks like this.

“Global warming is surely to account for this change” notes Al Gore. (Gore 44).

Vetting your Sources

In the above example, I suggested using two reliable sources: a government source (NOAA) and a renowned author and former Vice President. (Al Gore) But what if you don’t have such obviously esteemed sources to choose from? What your Uncle Joe heard on NPR and then reported at dinner isn’t a good source. But if you took that lead and found an article on NPRs website that reports the information he heard, that IS a good source. If you are finding only unsubstantiated claims on websites that are not from authoritative sources, try to find additional scholarly sources that say the same thing and utilize those sources in your bibliography and citations. Use the databases available for you on the databases page of your library website. Your librarians subscribe to databases for your use and we have vetted them for you. You can be assured that any articles you find there are going to be recognized and valued by your professor. You can also make use of the Bibliographies and Works Cited of articles you find helpful. They will allow you to find still MORE sources that will be valuable. If you still need help ask a librarian. We will help to steer you in the right direction.

Works Cited

In either case, the Works Cited from the example above would include both of these authoritative sources. Using Modern Language Association, 7th edition format, they would look like this:

Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. New York: Rodale, 1992. Print.

“NOAA Study: Increase in Particles High in Earth’s Atmosphere Has Offset Some Recent Climate Warming.” NOAA:National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 21 July 2011. Web. 25 July 2011.

Works Cited or Bibliography?

The Works Cited, References or Bibliography section of your paper is where you really show the hard work you’ve put in in your research, even before you wrote the first sentence. Works Cited and References mean the same thing: it is an alphabetic list of all of the sources you cited in your paper. But it includes ONLY those things that you’ve cited. You may have looked at some sources and kept notes on ideas that didn’t actually make it into the paper. If you want to include all of the authoritative works you reviewed, you can put them all into a Bibliography. Which you include in your paper is largely a matter of the preference of the preference of your professor or instructor. He or she will give you guidelines on what is needed.

Citation Styles

Below is a sample Works Cited with many different citation styles, for illustration.

Works Cited

M. Bracke, “Evolution of Reference: A New Service Model for Science and Engineering Libraries,” Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, vol. 28, pp.56-99, Jan. 2008.


Gayton, Jeffrey T. “Academic Libraries: ‘Social’ or ‘Communal?’ The Nature and Future of Academic Libraries.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.1 (2008) : 60-66. Web. 19 Nov 2008. (MLA)

Katz, B. (2001). Long live old reference services and new technologies. Library Trends, 50(2), 263. (APA 6th ed)

1. Joshua I. Weinstein, “The Market in Plato’s Republic,” Classical Philology 104 (2009): 440. (Chicago Manual of Style)

Looking at this list of citations, you can see that all of the citation styles will allow a researcher to get back to your original research. You can further see that it is really important to utilize only one format and be consistent when writing up your works cited lists. Imagine a faculty member trying to figure out the volume number of each of these citations if they all were put into a single Works Cited list. Here’s a tip: It’s a good practice, generally, to not try to get a faculty member angry as he or she is finishing reading your paper!

Below is exactly the same article cited in three different citation style formats that are frequently required in undergraduate classes; Chicago Manual of Style, MLA and APA.

Susan Collins, Linda Dujmic, and Terry Hurlbert. “Going Off Site: Implementing a Plan for a Library Storage Facility.” Technical Services Quarterly 23, no. 3 (2006): 39-49.

(Chicago Manual of Style)

Collins, Susan, Linda Dujmic, and Terry Hurlbert. “Going Off Site: Implementing a Plan for a Library Storage Facility.” Technical Services Quarterly 23.3 (2006) : 39-49. Web. 4 Nov 2009. (MLA)

Susan Collins, Dujmic, L., & Hurlbert, T. (2006). Going Off Site: Implementing a Plan for a Library Storage Facility. Technical Services Quarterly, 23(3), 39-49. doi:10.1300/J124v23n03_03


In comparing them, one can see that they do contain the same information. The article came from the journal entitled Technical Services Quarterly. The volume it was in is numbered 23, and it was published in 2006. The authors are obvious as, is the title. But the format is significantly different. The MLA and APA citation is double spaced to the single spaced Chicago Manual of Style format. The MLA format identifies the article as having come from web content, while the Chicago Manual of Style and APA format is silent on that issue. While the order of the name in Chicago Manual of Style and APA is firstname, lastname (Susan Collins), and in MLA it is reversed, (Collins, Susan) they would both fall in the same place in a list of works cited: alphabetically by the first author’s last name. Which format is used is really one of personal preference, or the personal preference of your instructor. Different professions require the use of different citation styles that fit the specific needs of researchers in that profession. As a writer, your job is to ensure that you are consistently adhering to the required format style of your paper. If your professor is unconcerned about choosing a particular style, choose the one that is most comfortable for you.


Using intellectual property in an ethical manner requires the author (you) to be conscientious and informed. Respecting the rights of copyright, trademark and patent owners, through proper attribution and obtaining permission (when needed), spurs future creative endeavors. Use the works of others, but cite them properly.

Additional Resources

For more help on formatting a citation, look for citation help” link on your library’s home page and review the Citation Guides and Style Help page. Additional help for writing style and citing sources can be found at Purdue’s OWL page.And don’t forget to take advantage of resources like your university’s Writing Center.

  1. Copyright Website
  2. A Fair(y) Use Tale: An interesting mashup on copyright using Disney videos.
  3. Copyright on Campus from the Copyright Clearance Center

Works Cited

Butler, Rebecca P. 2001. “Copyright as a Social Responsibility-Fair Use: I Need It Now!” Knowledge Quest 29, no. 3 (January/February): 35-36.



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