The Write Stuff--Part 5: Protected Material

Are the creative juices flowing? Is your manuscript thriving, or is it on life support? I'd say about a third of my articles showed signs of "decompensation" before I was able to stabilize them. Don't be too quick to pronounce; like patients, comatose compositions improve after spontaneous inspiration. (I think I'd better end this analogy before I get into obvious death.)

This month's column concerns the use of printed material that isn't your own. It's not the most stimulating topic, but certainly an important one, assuming you want to avoid situations that are, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, unethical. I'll skip all but the most superficial legal matters because my ignorance of the law is vast and irremediable.

It's rare to write for publication in this industry without referencing someone else's work. Opinion pieces like my Life Support columns are exceptions, consisting mainly of the author's views. However, in May's "Real Medics," I built my theme around advice I got many years ago from a coworker named Fred. He believed we don't become real paramedics until our first refresher. I credited him with that axiom in my opening paragraph. I don't think he would have noticed if I'd treated his comments as my own, but it wouldn't have been right not to acknowledge the source of such a distinctive point of view. It was a matter of ethics, not law.

Since I couldn't recall Fred's exact remark, I paraphrased what he told me instead of trying to quote him. I cited him by first name--enough to show my readers I'm not taking credit for the idea behind the words--and I sent him a preliminary draft of the relevant paragraph to confirm I'd expressed his feelings correctly. I considered those steps sufficient to document and validate our one-on-one conversation.

Usually we don't have direct access to originators of material we want to use. It wouldn't be practical to contact every source for permission, then send samples, negotiate terms, etc. Fortunately, there are rules--OK, laws--concerning use of so-called protected work. They're not complicated--well, not compared to Hare Traction Splints.

Let's begin with a discussion of copyright. I'm sure you've heard the term. Copyrights protect original creations that exist in physical forms of expression. Text, audio, video and graphics may be copyrighted; thoughts, ideas and facts may not. For example, Fred's opinion about real medics couldn't have been copyrighted unless he'd written or otherwise recorded it. But you don't have to publish your work to gain protection from its copyright; nor do you have to register it, although registration documents a copyright and makes it easier to defend.

Transcribing another author's work without permission is subject to the rule of fair use: In general, you can comment on, criticize or parody limited portions of copyrighted material, registered or not. We do that often. Here's a hypothetical example:

In a January 2011 interview with Jennifer Goodwin, author and physician Bryan Bledsoe labels paramedic education one of the most important EMS issues. "Everybody in EMS wants respect," Bledsoe says, "but they don't want to put in the time to get the necessary education…"

I'm referring to an article in April's issue of EMS World Magazine. Although I cited sources--the interviewer and interviewee--it's still unclear where readers would find the rest of that piece. Here's what happens when I try to squeeze those specifics into my paragraph:

In a January 2011 interview with Jennifer Goodwin on Page 30 of April's EMS World Magazine, accessible through www.emsworld.com/print/EMS-World/Meet-the-EMS-Myth-Buster/1$16574, author and physician Bryan Bledsoe labels paramedic education one of the most important EMS issues. "Everybody in EMS wants respect," Bledsoe says, "but they don't want to put in the time to get the necessary education…"

That first sentence is wordy and distracting. A better approach would be to include those details in a bibliography or list of references at the end of the piece. Either addendum would work without muddling the manuscript. References usually include numbered footnotes that are found within the text, while bibliographies simply list sources of protected material. I usually choose a bibliography and accumulate entries as I find them. Formats vary slightly according to publishers' preferences, but the details are constant: author, title, publication, issue, page(s) and date for printed items; author (if known), title and website for online sources.You'll find examples of both types of citations in the bibliography at the end of this column.

Fair use can be compromised if you appropriate copyrighted material for commercial purposes (e.g., an advertisement for a product or service), if you're competing with the holder of the copyright, or if you reproduce a significant proportion of the author's work. An example of the latter would be if I'd copied several paragraphs of Goodwin's manuscript. That would hardly be original, and would have contradicted both legal and ethical guidelines.

A worst-case scenario? You start your own EMS magazine, name it My EMS World, include a back-page piece called Advanced Life Support, and copy verbatim the first two-thirds of my May column, leaving space for an advertisement about a hair-replacement clinic whose slogan is "You can't handle the truth."

(Quick quiz: Why can I quote that line from A Few Good Men, but you can't without the copyright holder's permission? Answer: I'm using that movie's dialogue to illustrate and clarify my point, while you'd be exploiting the film for commercial purposes. Shame on you.)

Text isn't the only material that can be protected; photos and art also are tangible works. Such items are useful because they often do more to amplify your theme than prose alone. Editors love pictures. However, you shouldn't assume you can download and submit them for publication unless you get permission from the copyright holders or the items are in the public domain. You don't need approval to use public-domain works. Often they'll be listed as such on websites. By definition, all ideas, facts, titles, names, short phrases, blank forms and federal documents are in the public domain, too.

Next month we'll get back to composition. I'll roll out my own version of a kinder, gentler "grammar school."

Bibliography

Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at mgr22@prodigy.net.

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