How Speakers Should Handle Copyrighted Material

Speakers need to understand and respect copyrights
Speakers need to understand and respect copyrights
Image Credit: David Wees

As speakers, the one thing that we want to happen when we give a speech is to use the importance of public speaking and be remembered. In order to make this happen, we will spend countless hours thinking about what we want to include in our next speech. We will often think about how other people have been able to reach out and connect with our audience and sometimes we’ll decide that we want to do the same thing that they did – we want to use their material in our speech. When we make a decision like this, we are starting to travel down a dangerous road. If we use too much of someone else’s material then we may run the risk of violating their copyright.

Be Careful When Dealing With Copyrighted Works

As speakers, we need to remember that nothing ever dies on the Internet. What this means is that we have to be careful about what we borrow from other sources, because what once might have been a casual reference made to a small group could now live forever on a YouTube channel. Problems with copyrights have affected many political candidates. If they misspeak – or simply misstate a fact – it can have far-reaching implications. What speakers need to understand is that borrowing someone else’s words can also be a bad thing to do. While certain phrases – like those from the Bible or Shakespeare – have entered our culture so that a reference to them often doesn’t require attribution, failing to acknowledge a source can damage your reputation. And borrowing too much from someone else’s spoken or written words can have even more dire consequences for you: it can potentially lead to a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

In the U.S., copyright law is based on the constitutional mandate to protect the rights of authors to their work. Infringing these rights comes with both civil and criminal penalties. Copyright protection starts when an “original work of authorship” is first “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” What this means is that a speech is protected by copyright if it is typed or taped, but not if it is extemporaneous and goes unrecorded. The only two requirements for establishing a copyright are originality and created in some format from which it can be read back. Once created, the author’s copyright lasts a really long time. Copyrights held by people generally endure for the life of the author (or the last surviving joint author) plus 70 years, so long as the work was not originally published before January 1, 1978. For works first published before that date, various durations apply, although you can assume that, generally, works first published in the U.S. before that date are protected for 95 years. Most foreign works are subject to the life-plus-70 rule.

How To Deal With Copyrights

Exactly what is a copyright? The traditional definition is the “bundle” of all of the rights in a work. The copyright law notes that there are five main rights that are reserved exclusively for copyright owners: the right to reproduce the work in copies and the right to distribute those copies, the right to display the work, the right to perform it in public (including, in the case of sound recordings, by digital audio transmission), and the right to prepare derivative works based on the original. Speakers need to understand that when you use photographs or cartoons in a PowerPoint presentation without obtaining permission, you may be violating someone’s copyright.

A copyright (©) notice on the work in question is not required to establish or preserve copyright (although that was necessary in the U.S. before 1978). As a result of this change, it can be difficult for a speaker to determine who owns a copyright, or whether it is still in force. The safest bet is to assume that a work is protected unless you can prove it is in the public domain. Just where does that leave you if you want to quote others in your presentation? Generally, a speaker will be able to quote a short phrase, usually with attribution. The point when that short phrase becomes too long depends, among other things, on how large the audience is, whether the speech is being “fixed” in print or on video for further distribution, and whether it comes from a book of anecdotes or jokes for speakers, or if it constitutes stealing someone else’s act.

So what should a speaker do? If you think you may be borrowing too heavily from a protected source, consider asking for permission, which is often granted gratuitously, although sometimes a fee may be required. Permission must be obtained from the copyrightholder, who is generally the author of the work. Fortunately, many published works continue to bear copyright notice, indicating a starting point in determining who should be contacted for permission to copy, distribute, perform, display or adapt a work. The important thing to remember is that a copyright is property, and infringing a copyright is similar to trespassing on someone else’s land. If you do this, then you do it at your own risk!

What All Of This Means For You

When we are in the process of building our next speech, many different things may run through our minds. We may remember something that we just saw on TV, something we read in a book, or perhaps something that was in a movie. These can be great things to work into a speech in order to tap into the benefits of public speaking and make our speech seem even more topical. However, we need to be careful when we start to incorporate material that we did not create ourselves. If we simply copy what someone else has done and present it as our work, then we may run into copyright violations.

Although certain phrases from texts such as the Bible or Shakespeare have entered into common usage and are not copyrighted, other phrases are. If we borrow too much from a given source, we run the risk of violating an author’s copyright. A copyright starts when an author creates a work and records it in some media. A copyright lasts for 70 years beyond an author’s death. A copyright provides an author with 5 main rights to their work. A work does not require a copyright notice. It can be difficult to determine who holds the copyright to a work. Speakers who want to borrow content from a work should contact the copyright holder and request permission.

We all want our next speech to be one that our audience will remember. However, if one of the ways that we want to make this happen is by incorporating content that other people have made, we need to tread carefully. If we use too much of someone else’s material, then we may be violating their copyright. We need to always ask permission before we use someone else’s material. If you do this correctly, you can work the best content into your next speech and be remembered long after you get done speaking!

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: If you can’t find out who the copyright holder for a source is, can you incorporate it into your speech?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

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