Common copyright mistakes that can still get you sued

by Mark S. Luckie

The internet makes it incredibly easy to save a photo from a website, copy and paste text, and download and re-upload video and audio…a little too easy perhaps. The desire to instantly share content on the web means some web users are ripping others off, violating copyright laws, and possibly opening themselves up to legal action. The common mistakes below specifically pertain to U.S. laws, as copyright laws vary from country to country. However, the following points also act as moral guidelines to using content online.

“This image is on the internet, so it’s cool if I copy and use it.”

The number one mistake a lot of web users make is downloading an image from the web and using it on their own sites or blogs (see this example). Often, the image or photo is property of a photographer and they don’t take kindly to their work being used without permission. If you find a great image, try to locate the photographer and ask if you can use it. If you can’t find them, it still doesn’t mean you can use it freely.

“If it’s old, I can use it.”

Some works like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 were created so long ago, they aren’t subject to modern copyright laws. However, just because a work is old doesn’t mean it isn’t protected by copyright laws. Also, the content you’re eying may be a derivative work that is itself copyrighted. For example, Beethoven’s 5th isn’t copyrighted, but the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of that work is.

“If I say I’m not violating copyright laws, it’s cool.”

One of the most common phrases found on YouTube is “No copyright intended” and it appears in the description of millions of YouTube videos. Essentially members are posting copyrighted content and saying they don’t intend to violate copyright laws. The effect is similar to punching someone in the face and saying you don’t mean to hurt them. Including the phrase alongside the pilfered content won’t stop YouTube or any other site from sending a take-down notice.

“I’m not making money off of it.”

Whether you’re making money from using someone else’s content isn’t the issue. If you copy and use something created by another person you may be violating their rights to their work. Think of it this way: if you borrow someone else’s stapler, but don’t charge other people for collating their documents, that person is still going to ticked off that you used their stapler.

“If I just use a 30 second clip…”

There is no magical number or length that can prevent you from infringing on a copyrighted work. According to U.S. “fair use” laws, the total length of the work is only one factor in determining fair use. Other factors include the nature of its use and whether it diminishes the market for the original work.

“If I just use a few words or paragraphs…”

If the Associated Press debacle last year in which the AP planned to charge bloggers per word is any indication, using even the smallest amount of content could place you in deep legal trouble. Adding a link or attribution may not save you, especially if you copy entire stories and place them on your own site. As noted in the above paragraph, U.S. fair use laws consider the quantity of the work so be judicious about copying other people’s content.

The moral of this is post is that the internet may seem on the surface like a content free-for-all, but in many cases it is important to check with the content creator before using something for your own purposes.

Alternatively, you can use Creative Commons-licensed content (check the type of license before using the content, as there are several) or use pay sites like iStockPhoto, which houses multimedia content such as photos, video, and audio. Also, check out this previous post on ways to save money on your next multimedia project.