Things People Ask Me (Dec 2017)

Friends and Colleagues!

Thank you for your indulgence as I experiment with this newsletter. Previously it was “Learning Unbound,” focused on innovations in training and education, but then I realized you all have plenty of sources already for that stuff, so why pile on?

I thought I’d try, instead, a 12-month series on “things people ask me.” In my nearly three decades in the learning industry — as product developer, R&D executive, consultant, speaker, and author — I’ve been asked for advice on a lot of things. Some of that advice is worth sharing (I think) and doesn’t seem to be in circulation already.

So here’s the deal: one Q&A per month, along with a few bits of news (scroll down for this month’s news, including an opportunity to pilot my new workshop for free). I hope you find it useful. If you don’t, feel free to click the “Safe Unsubscribe” link at the bottom.

And now without further ado, here is this month’s Thing People Ask Me …



What are the rules around using someone else’s content (IP) in training and consulting materials?

[Note: I am not a lawyer and this is for information only. For legal advice, consult an attorney.]

The fundamental point about copyright law is this: You can’t copyright an idea. A copyright protects the tangible expression of an idea; that is, the specific text, images, audio, or video. “Copyright” literally means “the right to copy” a work or piece of a work.

If you copy something (image, text, video …) exactly from someone else’s work, and distribute it in any form, you may be violating their copyright.

Three common misconceptions:

  • “If I cite the source, it’s OK to copy.”  It doesn’t matter if you cite the source. People get confused about this because academic ethics (unrelated to copyright law) says authors must cite the sources of their ideas. But citing a source doesn’t mean you haven’t violated copyright.
  • “If it’s in the public domain, it’s OK to copy.”People often think “public domain” means something has been published in a book or appears on the internet. This is incorrect. “Public domain” is a legal concept which means the term of copyright has expired (copyright terms tend to run for 75 years and longer). For example, A Tale of Two Cities is in the public domain — the copyright has expired — so anyone could make copies of that book and sell them. But if a work’s copyright hasn’t expired, the work is not in the public domain — even if it’s in a book or on the internet.
  • “I’m not actually selling the materials, so it’s OK.” Copyright law applies whether you are making money from the work or not. (Of course, if you are making lots of money from it, you’re more likely to be noticed and sued.)

The basic rule: If you adopt an idea, change the expression of the idea: paraphrase the words, create new images, add your own ideas, etc. And, you should also adhere to professional ethics and cite the original source of the idea. One way to do this is to say, “Adapted from …” and cite the author and work.

By the way: there is a legal concept called de minimus, which means you can copy a little piece of a work without violating copyright. But “little” is relative and hard to define. If you copy one line out of a haiku, that is probably not OK. Or if you copy the thing that’s considered the “heart” of the work — whatever that is — it’s not OK. But one paragraph out of a 200-page book is likely de minimus and likely OK. (Again: be sure to be ethical and cite the source.) (And when in doubt, consult an attorney.)

Also by the way: There is a business aspect to all of this that is separate from the legal aspect. Consulting firms, for example, are often very protective of their IP and may go after anyone whom they perceive as stealing their “models,” even if the adopter is fine legally speaking. Many authors, on the other hand, love to have their ideas and models cited as long as you give them credit. So you need to be smart about the context. In all cases, however, copying text and images verbatim can get you into legal trouble.

So, practice safe IP! And remember:

  • Avoid copying any idea exactly; instead, transform the words and images to make the expression your own.
  • Even when you do change the words and images, be ethical and cite your sources.
  • If you want to use a piece of IP (e.g. an assessment, a training activity, a video, multiple pages from a book) “as is,” either buy a license for that IP or get explicit permission to use it from the author or distributor.

I’d love to hear from you! Let me know what topics you’d like to see covered in future issues of “Things People Ask Me.”


news and events

  • Are you an East coast L&D professional? I’m seeking a partner to sponsor a free pilot of my new half-day workshop, Leading in the Learning Zone, in the first week of March in Philly, New York, or Boston. You provide 10-20 participants, the space, and a bagel tray; I provide everything else. The workshop taps into wisdom from Shakespeare’s Henry V, along with practical tools and skills from my latest book, in order to develop a culture of leadership and learning at all levels. Contact me to discuss: jocelynrdavis@gmail.com
  • Have we been asking the wrong question about leadership? Check out this video clip of my recent talk at the Culture Ambassadors Retreat in Santa Fe.
  • My latest book, The Greats on Leadership, continues to find fans. I was thrilled to receive this review from Roger Mason, global L&D leader at REED. Now available in a Spanish edition.
  • My next book is under contract! The Art of Quiet Influence: Eastern Wisdom and Mindfulness for Everyday Work will be out in summer 2019 from Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Watch this space for updates.
  • The annual conference of the Alliance for Liberal Learning is on March 23-24, 2018, in downtown Chicago. Speakers include Ed Boswell — of Forum and PwC fame — and many more. Registration page will be up soon. Come a day early on March 22 to participate in my free afternoon workshop, Leading in the Learning Zone.


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