What can or can’t you do with already existing materials?

How do you best exploit your own materials?

All creators, entrepreneurs and producer-consumers (“prosumers”) in the creative industries are faced with these questions. There are decisions to be made, and the decisions are being structured by copyright law, often without the participants’ awareness or knowledge.

In preparation for this digital resource, a study was conducted in order to capture what information would be most useful in making these decisions.

The aim of the study was to establish what (1) the digital public (engaging with existing materials as users, or prosumers) and (2), more specifically, media professionals (engaging with and producing new materials as creators and producers) know, and would like to know about copyright law. In order to keep the legal complexity manageable, the focus was on the UK in the first place.

In seeking to assess the research question, ‘what knowledge does the public possess about UK copyright?‘, the researchers adopted an inductive approach and employed a scoping methodology to gather the widest range of views from users.

In order to address the research question, an empirical study was designed to detect areas of public uncertainty about the law on copyright, and identify specific areas of concern within the public understanding that could further be used to generate pedagogic materials. Without significant prior expectations, the research team set out to generate a shortlist of key areas of concern from a wider survey of public views on copyright. Due to the particular nature of the subject domain, and its relatively niche audience (professional and amateur media creators), a traditional survey method was rejected; instead, the team sought out a sample of materials independently generated by the community of ‘copyright users’ themselves.

Taking previous work as a starting point, the team developed a content analysis methodology to capture information from publicly available question and answer boards on the internet. Yahoo Answers was chosen as the site for this research as it is the most popular community-driven question-and-answer site for members of the general public to raise questions. The website allows any person to post a question which can then be answered by way of posts from other users. Answers are rated by other users, giving an indication of the value of the contribution. Network effects, as well as socialisation features theorised by media scholars to enhance the willingness of strangers to contribute resources to a voluntary project, mean that the level of user engagement is high. Users may perceive themselves to be in competition with their peers via ‘gamification’ effects, while some may derive other social benefits such as self esteem from sharing their expertise on a given topic.

Selecting the data

A search tool is provided on the Yahoo Answers website enabling a user to find all questions and answers containing selected search terms. The study sampled from the population of all questions containing the broad keyword ‘copyright’. This initial search provided 172,870 results. In order to further limit the scope of the study, candidate cases were restricted to ‘questions and answers written in English’. The sample was further limited by time period, using only those entries of one year old or less. This provided 24,438 results, ranging from May 2012 to April 2013. From among these results, the first 200 were selected.

Due to the nature of the website, some results were duplicated. Therefore, to retain 200 examples and to avoid analysis of the same post twice, when identical question and answers by the same users came up, they were excluded.


Using qualitative sorting and coding techniques, the initial 200 questions were reduced in number to 20 key themes. In order to assist with this task, the team generated frequency tables to identify the most commonly repeated words and phrases in the sample. In addition to automated frequency counting, the team recorded further information about each entry. This included the medium concerned (text, photograph, film, interactive) as well as the nature of the copyright issue concerned. The team used open categories, adding more as they emerged from analysis of the data. In addition to the type of medium and copyright issue of interest to the question answer, the team recorded qualitative information about the level of sophistication of both the question asker and any potential responders. Four different variables were recorded for this purpose: breadth of question, evidence of legal knowledge in question, quality of writing in answer, and evidence of legal knowledge in answer. For each of these variables, a 5-point Likert-style scale was used. Finally, the team recorded the number of replies received by a given question, as an indicator of either disagreement on the issue or the importance of the issue to the wider community.


The research team further conducted a series of 18 qualitative interviews with creators across six broad artistic mediums: music, film, performance, visual art, writing and interactive development. These mediums were the most frequently referenced by users in the sample of 200 frequently-asked questions. Subsumed within these categories include ‘new’ forms of creativity such as blogging, DJing and interactive storytelling. In selecting interview candidates, the researchers chose deliberately not to include ‘well known’ creators, who are already part of a machinery of legal advice. Instead, the team approached young and quasi-professional creators without access to expert legal advice, reflecting the aim of the researchers to survey potential gaps in existing knowledge.

The team adopted an intersubjective approach to the interviews. While these were semi-structured, consisting of a similar set of questions asked of each creator, the creators were given the opportunity to ask questions to the research team. These questions in turn constitute data: they reveal what troubles small-scale creators the most about the relationship between copyright and their own work. These questions were largely in line with what was gathered during the FAQ exercise, but the voices of creators on camera provided a human reinforcement to the largely automatically collected data.

In the design of this pedagogic resource, an important methodological decision was made: because the FAQs and video interviews were obtained from non-lawyers, the transcripts contained many mistaken beliefs and legal errors. Preserving these inconsistencies was deemed to be a necessary part of our bottom-up methodology. Before imposing the structure of copyright, we tried to gather an ethnographic account of the misconceptions and real concerns of creators. The interview data reflect what creators typically think; a further requirement in the design of the pedagogic resource was to provide accurate information to the public without undermining the legitimacy of the creators’ voices.