Conference Presentations & Copyrights

A history enthusiast, in an online forum that will go unnamed, was singing the praises of conference presentations for self-education. He noted the pros and cons of both live and recorded instruction.  He spoke highly of the syllabus material some conferences provide, often numerous pages that distill the main points of each speaker’s presentation.

All well and good.

Then he plunged head first into the quagmire of legal rights: “Especially note,” he said, “whether the syllabus material carries a copyright symbol. Some conference presentations may not be new. If the syllabus material carries a copyright symbol, it means the presenter is giving you a ‘standard presentation’ and you cannot reproduce it.”


Please repeat after me, Dear Sir: Copyright has nothing to do with first runs, trial runs, or command performances. It’s a matter of ownership.

Whether a speaker is giving a presentation for the first time or the fiftieth, the speaker’s utterances are copyrighted. The speaker’s syllabus material is copyrighted. The speaker’s visual aids are copyrighted. What’s more, they are copyrighted whether they carry the hocus-pocus sign © or the hex word “Copyright”—or neither. 

Copyright is about ownership. Our homes don’t have a sign hanging on the front door saying “Owned by ... ,” but the lack of that sign doesn’t mean our homes are free for the taking, right?  Right. Copyright’s no different. What someone has labored to produce is not free for admirers to do with as they please, whether it’s a house or a finely honed hour of instruction.

If copyright is still a murky issue for you and you’d like a plain-language discussion of how to avoid copyright problems, check out QuickLesson 15, “Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing.”