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Are Sketchnotes copyright infringement?

I recently read an interesting article by Jamie Knight about conference talks and copyright with regards to Sketchnotes.

For anyone who is not familiar with the term, Sketchnotes are a form of visual note taking or journaling. They're a popular way of creating conference notes, and there have even been several books released of conference talks condensed into Sketchnotes. You can find more information about them at Sketchnote Army.

I am not a lawyer

I'm not a lawyer, I have no specialisation in copyright law in any jurisdiction. So please do not take anything I write as legal advice. If you have concerns about copyright or IP, speak to a professional!

Also I'm in the UK, and Jamie is in the UK. I know different countries have different legislation when it comes to copyright protection, but in this post I'll be talking about the UK.

Copyright and licensing

The main thrust of Jamie's article seems to be that in order to stop other people from claiming copyright of his work he must explicitly license it;

Unless you are explcit about the rules (aka the license) of your presentation, they [sketchnoters] can do pretty much what they like with the content. Depending on your views on sharing, this may be very much against what you wish.

The vast majority of sketchnoters attending a free event would not attempt to create a derivative work (eg, capture your content) then lock it in copyright and agressively defend it. However, some will and for me that ended in a freindship collapsing. [sic]

His reasoning for this is to attempt to ensure that his work is open and freely available to as many people as possible. Something I completely support, I share all my own talks for much the same reasons. Even my job is largely based upon sharing my knowledge. But does that mean by not having an explicit license on this blog post or any of my talks that I risk someone else usurping my content?

Well, no. As soon as I create something I own the copyright to it, with a few conditions. By default the restrictions on what someone else can do with my copyrighted work are actually quite high.

When we license our copyrighted works we are extending the rights someone has to the work, we cannot limit their rights further as without a license they only have the limited rights granted to them by copyright law, and we cannot create a license that removes someone's legal rights.

You may sometimes see "All rights reserved" on music or films, but even this is no longer required. Copyright right protection is granted without any formality of notice of copyright.

Can a license prevent Sketchnotes?

As a license can only grant rights and not remove them, it cannot prevent people from creating Sketchnotes. That is down to your interpretation of Fair dealing.

Sketchnotes & Fair dealing

In my opinion Sketchnotes do not breech copyright as they're covered by the following exceptions:

Fair dealing for criticism, review or quotation is allowed for any type of copyright work


There is an exception to copyright that permits people to use limited amounts of copyright material without the owner’s permission for the purpose of parody, caricature or pastiche.

Criticism, review or quotation

This is the most obvious exception in my mind. Sketchnotes are arguably a visual review or criticism of a conference talk, as long as the extent of the quotation is no more than is required to create the Sketchnote.

Parody, caricature and pastiche

So what is a "pastiche"?

an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces imitating various sources – Oxford English Dictionary

I'm more unsure about Sketchnotes fitting within this exception, but I think a case could be made to argue that they do.

And that's part of the issue with fair dealing, much of it is open to interpretation.

‘Fair dealing’ is a legal term used to establish whether a use of copyright material is lawful or whether it infringes copyright. There is no statutory definition of fair dealing - it will always be a matter of fact, degree and impression in each case. The question to be asked is: how would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work? – UK Guidance on Copyright exceptions

Final thoughts

As much as I agree with why Jamie licenses his talks the way that he does I do not think it does anything to prevent people from creating Sketchnotes of his conference talks, even for commercial purposes. Of course there is no harm in asking them not to.

However, reading Jamie's articles and researching copyright in order to write my own post has made me think about how I license my own content, or at the moment don't. That is something I need to rectify as at present the lack of a license restricts how people can use my copyrighted works more than I want.

You can find more information about UK Copyright Law on the Gov.uk site, and if anyone reading is an IP/Copyright lawyer and can actually provide an answer to the Sketchnotes question please contact me on Twitter and I'll happily update this article.

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