Is it OK to record conference presentations? Reconsidering “fair use” and electronic note-taking

Is this fair use?

Yours truly, a humble and stupid PhD student, recently committed an embarassing faux pas in a conference. While listening intently to a very interesting and relevant presentation in a packed plenary session, I was photographing the slides (thick with text and graphics, as usual) instead of trying to divide my attention between listening and making notes. However, one of the conference organizers noticed my efforts and politely asked whether I had asked the presenter the permission to record the presentation.

Apparently, the concept of “fair use” didn’t cover photographing every slide of the presentation, even though just about every slide was chock-full of very important information.

As far as I know, the organizer was in the right: because I hadn’t asked the permission beforehand, I committed a breach of etiquette. I shouldn’t have photographed the slides, even though I had planned to only use them to back up my own notes. But is this interpretation of “fair use” really in line with the spirit of science and the purpose of scientific conferences?

As a presenter, I’ve so far been more than happy if someone is sufficiently interested in my ideas to record whatever parts of the presentation he or she chooses. This is simply because as a researcher, I want to spread my ideas as far and wide as possible, and it’s certain that recordings AND notes go farther than notes alone. I find it difficult to even think of situations where I wouldn’t want someone to record what I’m saying or showing; if there is something I don’t want to spread around the globe in 80 hours, the rule #1 is do not present it to a global audience. Hence, I honestly hadn’t even thought that someone might object.

But reflecting on the matter, I do understand that some presenters might feel differently, although I still think that presenting something one doesn’t want to spread is somewhat counterproductive. It should also be obvious that recording with the intention of passing the material on as one’s own (aka plagiarism) is definitely wrong. I also know – now – that “fair use” doesn’t really cover recording entire presentations, even if for the sole purpose of note-taking. So the question is, should we avoid recording presentations or collectively reach a solution what “fair use” means in this context?

It is probably clear already that my position is one of maximum openness. In a world where even eyeglasses might come with cameras and every cellphone is capable of making perfectly adequate if not Hi-Fi quality audio records, I feel that restricting the note-taking to writing and typing is simply Ludditic.

It is also needlessly unappreciative of different learning strategies. I can’t speak for others, but I know that I have lots of trouble trying to understand and remember spoken lectures. This is especially difficult when the language used is bad English, as is quite commonly the case. I need notes and I need the slides, or I need the paper; otherwise I have very little hope for remembering the important points just some days later.

Finally, restricting recording by default is also counterproductive from the viewpoint of the presenter herself. Bad notes and bad memory conspire to make the audience forget the presentations faster than it takes them to leave the plenary room.

There are probably very good arguments against recording conference presentations, but being a stupid PhD student, so far I haven’t been able to think of any. Perhaps the most compelling counterarguments, that recordings help plagiarism or stealing of ideas, are problematic on at least two counts. First, in the era of increasingly efficient and automated search engines,  copying unattributed ideas that have been presented to a broader audience is a career-limiting move, particularly if there’s a possibility the presentation been recorded by others; second, what prevents individuals with eidetic memory or hidden cameras from doing so already? Memory wipes and cavity searches?

Of course, the correct way to record presentations exists: one should simply ask in advance whether the presenter allows it. But as anyone familiar with conferences knows, it’s sometimes difficult to know in advance what the really interesting presentations are, and it’s also sometimes a bit difficult to ask the permission beforehand – particularly so in plenary sessions. I, for one, have never seen anyone actually do so, although I’ve seen even tape recorders employed!

Therefore, to clarify what is OK and to encourage people to use the modern note-taking tools to the fullest (i.e. to help folks spend their time doing sciencey stuff instead of deciphering scribbled notes), I offer two humble suggestions. First, to presenters: please state in advance whether you allow the presentations to be recorded, and with what limitations. Second, to conference organizers, who are in a position to determine in advance whether recordings should be allowed or disallowed by default. How about moving to the 21st Century by informing presenters and the audience that by default, recordings are allowed, and if a presenter wants to prevent (overt) recording, she needs to inform the audience before the presentation?

Meanwhile, smartened by the experience, I already added a statement in bold red type to my Keynote master slides:


About J. M. Korhonen

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7 Responses to Is it OK to record conference presentations? Reconsidering “fair use” and electronic note-taking

  1. Alexandros says:

    Janne hi,
    I quite enjoy your posts as i find them very easy to read and full of valuable information covering a vast range of domains.
    As for this one, i think i have mixed feelings. I totally understand your point that once you present something to public then in a sense becomes property of everyone interested on what you say/offer etc. On the other hand, i understand if people are a bit more sensitive on “fair use” as this term is subject of different interpretations by each one of us. It is more about ethics in the end i guess, and as you mention.

    Keep up posting.



    • Hi Alexandros, thanks for the comment and for the nice feedback :).

      I think the problem is that we haven’t really considered what “fair use” means in this context. It’s obvious that taking notes with pen and paper is fair use, and most seem to agree that typing them up on your laptop is no different, but what about other recording methods? Technology has (again) outpaced the ethics discussion, and a reason I wrote this post is to raise debate about what should and what shouldn’t be approved.

      I believe clarifying these issues is more important than what is and what is not fair use. I’m cool if people say that pen and paper notes are fair use, but photographs aren’t (although I think it would be a bit silly), but would appreciate if they would make their positions known in advance, so that there wouldn’t be those embarrassing moments like the one that started me thinking.

      I also think that the unclear position – what kind of recording is OK and what’s not – is needlessly keeping people from using more efficient note-taking methods. And that’s actually a larger problem than those embarrassing moments, as it needlessly hinders the flow of information, which in turn hinders scientific progress :).

      One thing I didn’t mention in the article is that laws and practices differ between countries, and that’s in itself a reason to discuss and decide what is considered fair use in international scientific conferences. The aforementioned conference was in another country, and I for one didn’t have a clue what the local copyright laws were. I have a hunch that this could lead to a nasty dispute if, say, a local records the entire presentation and rouses the ire of the foreign presenter – and it turns out that the local was in his rights to do so. (Or vice versa.)

      But let’s continue the discussion, hopefully we can clarify these issues in time!

      Best, Janne

  2. Alexandros says:

    Hi Janne,

    Again, i find your remarks valid. As you mention, technology has outpaced, ethics, practices etc. So easy to record a piece of information, easy to alter or recreate it and much easier to spread this the “new” piece of information.
    Possibly that is why authors and designers on “design” and “creativity” (but also on other professional domains) are involved in this hilarious (i believe) race of creating terms, such as the so-called “design-thinking”, and trademarked design-process names that in the end almost all of the describe the same thing.
    I firmly believe that if someone really masters, possesses and is able to support, practice and deliver the information he/she is demonstrating has nothing to fear from others “copying” his/her material. Only people who falsely believe that everything originates from them (something like “parthenogenesis” if i am allowed to use a term from biology) express this fear and behavior of trying to protect their intellectual property.
    Still, i think that a universal written or ethical code on this matter is very difficult to be applied and for this reason, i think each presenter, before starting the presentation (maybe even more in advance, such as in the event invitation), should make explicit the IP related issues of recording the event. This will resolve also incidents like the one you described, where you happened to be in a different country with its own copy-write laws, as designers, researchers, academics can not (and should not) be expected to master as well IP laws for every information is provided to them in a public event.

    Looking forward for your next posts.

    Best regards,


  3. Francis says:

    In the US and elsewhere, copyright law does not prohibit individuals from making one copy of something for personel use. So perhaps your issue is not a copyright issue. Rather, it seems that your photo taking ran afoul of the conference rules. And of course the conference is free to make its own rules and your complience a condition on attendence. Best, Francis

    • That is entirely possible. My own interpretation, though, was that it was one person’s personal interpretation, as I still can’t find any rules regarding the issue.

      What I call for is exactly that: please, presenters, make clear whether recording and what kinds of recordings you’d allow or disallow in your presentations.

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