Everything was going so well with our most popular blog post, “7 Views from an Airplane,” which had garnered well over 1 million views. It had somehow gone viral on a student blog my team and I managed for fun.
It turned out to be a wake-up call: We were hit with a settlement letter from one of the largest suppliers of stock images on the Internet. They asked for $1,000 for our use of unlicensed images from their website. As a team of only five back in 2010, this was a lot of money. We had to bite the bullet and pay the price for our naiveté.
The truth is, we’re all guilty of occasionally using someone else’s creation for our own benefit. Maybe you’re writing an article about Game of Thrones and need a particularly snazzy picture of Tyrion Lannister. Maybe you found an incredible recipe and want to provide it on your own site for your readers. Maybe it’s just been a long day and you don’t have the time to come up with a funny video on your own, so you borrow one.
But no matter how common these actions are, they’re illegal under copyright law. It doesn’t matter if you had “good intentions” or think it’s a sign of respect; the original author can still come after you in court.
Ok, so what is copyright, and what’s the point?
Copyright is defined as “A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations.” In other words, if someone made it, it’s probably copyrighted.
Copyrights exist to protect the financial interests of content creators. Imagine if someone stole the heart of your blog post and re-posted it as his own. Or what if you found your infographic somewhere else under someone else’s name? Not only would you feel cheated, but your ability to generate revenue from your work would be compromised.
Sure, a picture of Tyrion probably isn’t going to make tons of money. But someone went through the effort of making it, and, at the very least, that person wants recognition.
What Are Some Common Violations?
There are any number of ways to violate a copyright – just check out the definition above. Here are a few of the most common ones particularly pertaining to material posted on the internet.
- Posting an image or photograph without permission
- Posting a video without permission
- Re-using a large chunk of text without permission
- Creating a “derivative work” without permission
- Using someone’s fictional characters or plots without permission
Well, what am I supposed to do?
Though they may seem tedious, there are a number of ways to avoid copyright infringement.
First, you might have noticed the last phrase in each of the potential violations above: “without permission.” In other words, you can use whatever you want if you have the express permission of the original creator. Though it may seem a little scary to reach out, most people enjoy getting their work seen. As long as you receive permission and give credit, you’re okay.
Second, there is an entire category of content that falls under the “public domain.” Anything in this category can be used and manipulated to your heart’s content. This includes everything created by the US government employees within the scope of their duties (and some state governments), and anything published before 1923 (Pride and Prejudice, Beethoven’s 5th, etc). At the moment copyrights expire 70 years after the creator’s death, but the laws are constantly changing, so be sure to stay up to date.
Third, there is something called “fair use.” Something is covered by fair use if it is “comment, criticism, news reporting, teaching, research or scholarship,” according to the US government. A key consideration is whether the use is transformative, meaning that it adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message (as opposed to merely supplanting or superseding the prior work).
Diane Peters, general counsel at Creative Commons, explains, “Done Gone the Wind is a parody of Gone with the Wind. While this case settled before final resolution, it is largely cited for the proposition that that if you want to parody something, or use it for comment or criticism, that is typically a fair use.” Peters continues, “Now, if I reproduced an entire article [for critique] in my blog post, that becomes more difficult. If you’re commenting or criticizing something you’re normally pointing to specific features of the article, not reproducing the whole.”
My friend, Sanjay Nangia, who offers legal advise to startups at Davis Wright Tremaine, told me how Google’s use of copyrighted works as part of its Google Books tool was recently deemed to be fair use, in part because of its transformative nature. The court found that Google digitizes print books and transforms them into a comprehensive word index that helps scholars and researchers find books. Additionally, the tool merely provides snippets of a book’s text to facilitate the search.
Although big organizations like BuzzFeed claim it, fair use is a real Swiss cheese of a defense – it looks enticing, but there are a lot of holes. When in doubt, it’s better to stay away. Even Google’s fair use described above was far from clear cut.
There’s also a lot of openly licensed content on the internet. Creative Commons licenses give everyone from individual creators to large companies a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. Click on a CC license icon and you’ll be redirected to a deed page that will walk you through what you can and can’t do with the content. Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons, boils it down to “The CC licenses are designed to be simple and clear, so people know what rights they have with a particular work without seeking permission. CC reduces the friction of sharing.”
Creative Commons content, as well as other content available for re-use, can be found using the following resources:
- Wikimedia Commons: Search for “free images,” and you’ll likely find something that works. This is probably your best bet for open licensed images.
- Flickr: Search for “Creative Commons” in the “Advanced Search.” You’ll find a wonderful range of photographs you can use.
- Free Music Archive: The music in this database is all licensed out for free use.
- Google Advanced Search: Google Images offers the option, under “Search Tools” and then “Usage Rights,” to selectively search for images licensed under particular circumstances of re-use.
You may feel like the wide open world of the internet just got a lot narrower. But there is a lot of content available that won’t break the law. After our incident with the stock photo supplier, our EasyBib blog has stayed true to this without any suffering, and our GetCourse blog creates their own original content.
Do you think you might be breaking copyright accidentally? Feel free to tweet me @tapneal