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5 Myths About Online Copyrights

Just because a photo, video or article appears on a website doesn’t mean you can use it for your own marketing. A little care in sharing can go a long way.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
August 12, 2015

Stealing is just plain lazy.

And when you steal someone else’s content, you’re telling the world you’re above the law. You're saying that a picture you found online of a sofa drawn by an illustrator is of less value than the sofa in your very own living room—the sofa you paid for and would be downright angry about should you come home and find it missing.

Social media makes it easier than ever to share images, Web pages and media—all with a few simple clicks. But just because it's easy doesn't mean it's right.

Let's bust a few of the rampant myths floating around about the “things you find online.” You may have stolen content and not even known it. Your Facebook friends may be doing it every day. And without better education about copyright infringement, the problem is likely to get worse.

I recently sat down with Kandis Koustenis, an intellectual property attorney with Cloudigy Law, to get the legal skinny on the myths that lead to the content of amazing creators being stolen by willing and unwitting offenders alike. 

Myth No. 1: It’s on the Internet, so Anyone Can Use It.

Legal Truth: This one is unwaveringly and unequivocally false. Claiming that all online content is free is like saying, “Hey, the front door of your house was open, so I just came in and took whatever I wanted.” Just because you find an image or blog post or article or video and you like it, you may not have permission to share it.

“Folks run into problems when they do more than just link to something online,” Koustenis says. "When you directly copy or display the actual copyrighted material—in whole or part—even if you also provide a link to the original content, you're likely engaging in copyright infringement.”

And what if you share content from a friend or a brand you follow that they didn't have a right to share? If they posted stolen content and you share it, Koustenis says you’re guilty of copyright infringement.

“Knowledge or intent isn't required for copyright infringement liability,” she says. “Your right to share is only as good as the right to the original post. Know your source before you share.”

So how do you figure out what’s OK to share and what’s not? Koustenis has a few smart tips:

  • Look for built-in sharing options. Many professional photographers, like Gerard Tomko, keep multiple social media profiles that enable their fans to share images they’ve approved (and watermarked) for sharing. Matt Inman of The Oatmeal has social media sharing buttons at the bottom of every comic he creates. Blogs and news articles have share buttons, as do YouTube and Vimeo videos. When those social sharing buttons are present, you know it’s OK to use them and share the content.
  • Share within the same social network. Similarly, the terms of service for a particular social networking service may permit sharing as long as it's contained within that service. Twitter’s terms of service, for example, state that anyone posting content on Twitter expressly agrees to permit “re-tweeting” by others within Twitter.
  • Share licensed content. Use sources such as Copyright Clearance Center, Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons to find content that's already been licensed for sharing. Google and Flickr both provide ways to limit your image search to licensed images only.
  • When in doubt, ask for permission. See something floating around the Internet you love but don’t see how to easily share it? Reach out to the content creator/publisher/artist/reporter, and ask for permission. Be sure to say how and what you’d like to share, and agree to provide attribution. 

Myth No. 2: No Copyright Notice Means It’s Not Copyrighted.

Legal Truth: “By U.S. copyright law, copyright is granted to a content creator the moment an idea is fixed into any tangible form,” Koustenis says. In plain English, that means that the moment a photographer clicks a shutter, a writer pens a story or an artist creates an image, it’s protected by copyright. The work doesn’t even have to be published to be protected by U.S. copyright laws. With regards to content published online, this means that every blog post and news article out there is copyrighted as well; images, music and videos are, too.

Koustenis advises every website owner to put a copyright notice on their website. The footer is the most common area to do this, and you can do it today if you haven’t already. Registering a copyright is only necessary if you’re going to take legal action against someone for violating your copyright. In cases such as those, an attorney can help you expedite the copyright registration process. 

Myth No. 3: You Can’t Copyright Words.

Legal Truth: Actually, you can. I once encountered three websites that had stolen, nearly verbatim, a single page of my website. After a brief fight, two of those pages were taken down. The other page never made it to publication because the copywriter who was asked to “polish” my stolen content by his client said, “Hey, I know this writer. You can’t use this.” (Thankfully, he had contacted me and let me know—I’m forever grateful.)

“People may be confused here because they've heard you can’t copyright facts or ideas. This is true. But one’s expression of those facts and ideas is protected," Kousenis says. "When it comes to written expression, copyright infringement is determined by a measure of substantial similarity.” That means if you compare two pages—the copyrighted, original work and the potentially offending work side by side—they need to be substantially different in order to avoid copyright infringement. Even if you paraphrase, and change some words and the order of sentences, you can still be found guilty of copyright infringement and assessed the penalties you see cited below in Myth No. 5.

Your best bet? Write your own stuff from scratch or hire someone to do it for you, if you’re not so great with words. 

Myth No. 4: If They Didn’t Want It Shared, They Shouldn't Have Posted It.

Legal Truth: C’mon. You’re smarter than this. While the Internet makes is easy to share, that doesn’t mean you're granted a right to share just because you have an Internet connection.

“There's plenty of public opinion today in favor of a copyright-free or at least a copyright-less Internet, and further evolution of copyright to keep up with the Internet age is almost certain,” Koustenis says. “But that doesn’t discount the importance of protecting and encouraging creative expression.” 

Myth No. 5: I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Use That Content, so I Can’t Get in Trouble.

Legal Truth: Use that same argument with the cop who pulls you over for running a red light or driving under the influence, and let me know how that works out for you. Ignorance of the law doesn’t excuse you from the law.

When you steal stuff online, there are several actions that can be taken against you:

  • The content creator can sue you. Are you ready for a lawsuit? Costs can be hefty. You may be liable for damages that run into the thousands of dollars—this photographer won almost $250,000 in damages.
  • Your website can be shut down if you host stolen content. If you post stolen content on your site, the copyright owner can file a DMCA Takedown Notice with your hosting company. Not only can they force you to remove the content, but your entire site might be shut down if you don’t comply. 

So many people these days are most likely sharing content that's protected by copyrights. For additional reading and resources related to this topic, Koustenis recommends the following:

Read more articles on legal issues.

This article was originally published on August 28, 2014.

The information contained in this article is for generalized informational and educational purposes only and is not designed to substitute for, or replace, a professional opinion about any particular business or situation or judgment about the risks or appropriateness of any legal, financial or business strategy or approach for any specific business or situation. THIS ARTICLE IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL LEGAL ADVICE. The views and opinions expressed in authored articles on OPEN Forum represent the opinion of their author and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions and/or judgments of American Express Company or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions (including, without limitation, American Express OPEN). American Express makes no representation as to, and is not responsible for, the accuracy, timeliness, completeness or reliability of any opinion, advice or statement made in this article.
Photo: iStockphoto
Columnist, American Express OPEN