Thing 11: Copyright

A few weeks ago, an academic colleague asked me to digitise a play and add it to a reading list so all of their students could access it:

It should be out of copyright (1949) by now, right?

Librarian colleagues, depending on what else has happened in their day, might be laughing, groaning, snorting or shaking their heads. Here we go again! I replied:

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions we cannot digitise an entire play; plays from 1949 are still protected by copyright, the provisions of which apply to the reading list and to blackboard.

Working with academic staff to ensure that the contents of their reading lists and virtual learning environments are copyright-compliant can be one of the most mutually frustrating part of both our jobs. For teaching staff, it can seem like we are embodying our stereotypes as shushing pedants, needlessly enforcing out-of-date rules that benefit no one. For librarians, there is the frustration of being dismissed and ignored, again and again, as we try to uphold the provisions of copyright law.

An orange cat stares down a small dog
The irresistible force meets the immovable object

“cat vs dog” by 955.1428571 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Twenty years into the twenty-first century, and copyright shows no signs of becoming less complicated: digital environments and online learning materials constantly raise new questions and situations. An ethos of ‘no hidden costs’ and the rising cost of higher education foster student expectations that their teachers and libraries will provide all resources they need for their studies. In my 2.5 years of experience as a librarian, it sometimes seems like students and academics encounter copyright for the first time when it prevents them from doing something they want to do, an experience which hardly sets them up to see it as useful or necessary. Plus, there is just so much information out there that even if someone does want to use content created by others fairly, it can be difficult to know where to start.

This post aims to provide a few basic starting points for the copyright of images. First, we will explore the Creative Commons and use of an image from there. Then I will introduce use of an out of copyright manuscript image. I will conclude with a few reflections on raising awareness of copyright among university students and staff.

an example of a creative commons image

The task of Thing 11 is to reflect on copyright, licences, and Creative Commons (CC), by locating and using two media files which have a CC license. The charming orange kitty above was found by searching, a source of media files available for reuse. CC Licenses are designed to help the creators of online work share and use what they make. The image I used above is shareable under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, a string of numbers and letters which means that I can:

  • share the image in this blog post or any other format I choose
  • make changes and alterations to the image, using it as the basis for new material I might create

The two provisions are indicated by the CC symbol below the image. I can only share this image if I:

  • acknowledge the creator, provide a link to the image, and indicate if I made any changes–indicated by the tiny circle with the person in it
  • do not use the image for commercial purposes–i.e. the dollar sign with a slash through it
  • if I make any alterations to the image, distribute it under the same license as the original–the final symbol, an arrow pointing back on itself

When you think about the fact that a hour-long lecture might contain over twenty slides, and well over that number of images, it is tempting to despair. All that palavering for one image! It’s important to point out that finding and ‘checking’ the image was an extremely straightforward process: all media on the Creative Commons portal is shared under the different license types, and copying the HTML below the image automatically allowed me to embed the image in the post. The process took me less time than searching Google images, downloading a picture, and uploading it to this platform’s ‘Add Media’ feature.

Going Outside the Creative Commons: An Example

But what happens if you need to use a very particular image? For a colleague teaching paleography and codicology (respectively, the study of handwriting and manuscripts), it’s not enough to share a generic picture of an old book–for the manuscript specialist, old books are as individual as old friends, and far more rare. What do you do, for example, if you want to show your students a copy of British Library Additional Manuscript 5016 (BL Add Ms 5016), better known as The Forme of Curry, a cookbook written at the court of the English king Richard II in the 1390s by the king’s cooks?

This also turns out to be straightforward, as the help page on ‘How to Reuse Images of Unpublished Manuscripts‘ makes clear. They suggest three steps for sharing unpublished, out of copyright material:

  1. ‘Respect the creators’:  Acknowledge and provide information about the original creator, and take into account ethical considerations about the community or culture from which the material came.
  2. ‘Credit the source of the material’: provide a link to the British Library website, and indicate the manuscript shelfmark, folio, and other information necessary for locating the original. The BL and other libraries often provide a URL for the purposes of citation.
  3. ‘Support the public domain’: ensure that your use of these images doesn’t restrict other people’s freedom to use and enjoy these images in the future

So please enjoy ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ (pig in sage sauce):

Recipe for Pig in Sage Sauce, BL Add MS 5016
Recipe for Pig in Sage Sauce, BL Add MS 5016, f. 3r. ‘The Forme of Curry’ by The Master Cook of Richard II. Available here

If you fancy this for Sunday lunch sometime, you can find a transcript of the recipe here

final reflections

I started off with the point that it sometimes seems like the first time a lot of people become aware of copyright is when it prevents them from doing something they want to do: read an entire play with their students, share learning materials not in the library, or create a digital copy of a book that’s only been published in print. In short, copyright becomes the barrier but the actual problem is something else.

Going forward from writing this post, I plan to try to acknowledge this more in my dealings with academic colleagues about copyright. Rather than having my first reaction be ‘that’s illegal!’, I will try to change the way I look at things: what problem is my student or colleague trying to solve by breaking copyright law? How can I help them find a legal solution?

In the case of the plays with which I began, I looked around for digital copies–but there were none on Drama Online, or from my library’s suppliers; fortunately, I was able to allocate some of my book budget towards the purchase of additional print copies, which will help more students access the play they need to read. I may not have done it in the best way on that day, but moments like this are also opportunities to open conversations about copyright with our university communities. It’s difficult to make people enthusiastic about a prohibition, but are there ways to present copyright compliance as an opportunity?

As this wonderful graphic shows, there are a number of words associated with copyright which have more positive associations than ‘illegal’; I hope to find ways to start using some of them in conversations about copyright with students and colleagues.

Copyright Wordle“Copyright Wordle” by teachingsagittarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Further Resources

Copyright is complicated, confusing and constantly changing! Here are some resources recommended by the 23 Things programme:

Creative Commons wiki, with information about CC resources and their use:

The Copyright Hub:





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