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I would like to include some cartoons in my lecture notes, just to spice up things a bit and relax the atmosphere before moving to serious stuff. However, I am not sure if there is any issue with doing this (in terms of intellectual property) or if I can include any cartoon with the corresponding reference?

I am thinking of simple stuff like xkcd, phdcomics, and other nerdy jokes (nothing like the death of Superman or the first comic of Batman).

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    This would be for projection in a lecture hall? Beware that the audience probably cannot read the comic. So you will have to read it to them. – GEdgar Nov 11 '18 at 14:22
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xkcd is fine if you respect their license, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5. phdcomics are likely fine, as they come from the broader academic-nerd community, but it's always worth doing some research first (google for the name of the cartoon you're copying + "DMCA" or "takedown" for example). Dilbert? No idea. I don't think a fully included comic would necessarily fall under fair use.

There are some minor disadvantages, though:

  • You cannot release your notes under a more permissive license than the one your sources come with.

  • The size of your file is inflated, along with the compile time perhaps (assuming LaTeX).

  • As a consequence of both preceding points, it makes it harder to archive your notes for the long term (e.g., on arXiv or zenodo or even the AMS Open Math Notes repository). Doubly so if the comic strips get a new "owner" who starts using them as a copyright cudgel.

  • Not all students will like or even understand the joke. This holds particularly when a long-running comic strip accumulates inside lore, caters to a specific audience or follows a cryptic style (e.g. C&H).

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    I'm not sure that "you cannot release your notes under a more permissive license", at least in the case of a CC license. If your notes only contain the comic, they are not an adaptation, and your obligations terminate when you provide attribution (as far as I understand, and IANAL). – Federico Poloni Nov 11 '18 at 9:56
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As an undergraduate, I always appreciated when profs did stuff like this. It made it look like they actually put some effort into their notes, and a laugh was always appreciated in the middle of a frustrating and hard lecture.

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Yes, properly referenced.

Had language teachers that would base a class around a cartoon story - use of vocab etc.

Also, a cartoon sshort can highlight the current topic: water use & shortage for example, there was a Giles cartoon from the 70’s written when there was a garden water hose ban : people were having baths and saving the water to put on the plants... I used that.

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