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Author: Jakob

Dr. David Ng is definitely our kind of person. In addition to being smart as a scientist, he’s an excellent and inventive communicator with a great instinct for creating hooks. He’s also very skilled at devising relatable premises that are truly capable of carrying a...

If you know anything about basic science, it’s likely you’ve yelled at a television show for flagrantly making things up when it would seemingly be just as easy to ask an expert. Or a graduate of grade 8, for that matter. The people who go through the most pain are those in frequently represented fields: forensic scientists, lawyers, that sort of thing. I can only assume drug dealers and superspies have just as much trouble watching their fictional counterparts. This is all very understandable, I think. The story may be fictional, but as long as it’s grounded somewhere in the real world, some of us will at least want the internal mechanisms of the narrative to cohere—we want the moving parts to be there, even if they can’t really work. This attitude becomes harder to justify when the world of the narrative bears less resemblance to our own. How pedantic can you really be about the invented science of Star Trek? Very pedantic, it turns out. It turns out things like space combat aren’t pure speculation at this stage; there are some basic physical constraints that will probably apply no matter how technologically advanced we get. But really, there’s no limit. (Even Harry Potter got (dreadfully) re-written by someone who thought the system of magic in the stories wasn’t logical enough.)

My alma mater’s policy on quotation is (loosely paraphrased): “Please for the love of all that is good and pure in the universe, properly attribute all words from external sources so that we don’t need to award you a special mega-F and chisel your academic malfeasance into your headstone.” Point being, at least in my experience, talking to students about quoting is mostly a matter of begging them to actually do it rather than plagiarizing. At no point in my undergrad career did anyone explain the concept of “academic fair use” to me. I happily typed away, quoting (and properly citing, of course) to my heart’s content.

A beautiful tardigrade, easily procured without incurring anyone’s wrath. © Jacopo Werther, 2013 (CC BY 2.0) The thing about academic fair use is that it only covers you when you’re writing for a school of some kind. Even if you’re absolutely faultless in attributing the words you use, the sources from which you derive them and the use to which you put them both bear on what you’re allowed to do. You might need to ask permission to reproduce certain content or certain quantities of it. It’s also possible, depending on what you want to do, that the rights-holder will be entitled to compensation. The first question I imagine most people will have is, “What are the circumstances under which I can just use whatever I want without asking or paying anyone?” The answer to that is public domain. If the copyright has lapsed, or if the creator has voluntarily released the work into the public domain, then you’re free to do as you like with it. Be aware, though, that Creative Commons is not the same thing, and many of those licences come with conditions—though conveniently, many have attribution as the principal requirement. Also be aware that what constitutes public domain varies among countries, since they have different rules about when rights lapse.