If you have a website (particularly a blog) that occasionally appropriates material from other sites (especially other blogs), you may operate under the assumption that there’s some sort of unwritten rule that it’s alright to appropriate images from other blogs, since you don’t object when others appropriate images from your blog. While this “rule” might exist as a cultural norm in the blogging community, it has no legal basis, even if it usually works as a practical matter.
You should know that copyright law applies on the Internet just as it applies in the physical world, and appropriating an image to which someone else owns the copyright constitutes copyright infringement, which might subject you to civil liability requiring you to pay significant damages.
So, if you run a blog, how can you avoid committing copyright infringement?
The surest way to avoid copyright infringement is to only use 100% original content that you’ve created on your site. Obviously, this isn’t always practical, especially if you just need a “filler” image for a blog post or article you’ve written – the time involved in creating all new content is simply not worth the purpose for which it’s being used, in most cases.
So, assuming that you can’t create all original content for every single part of your site, what can you do to ensure that you don’t violate the intellectual property rights of other webmasters, here are a few additional steps you can take:
- Understand the basics of copyright law: in order to avoid violating copyright law, you have to understand at least the basics of what copyright law entails. Copyright law gives the creator of an original creative work the exclusive right, for a limited period of time, to reproduce (copy) their work, to distribute it to the public, and to publicly display it. This means that only the copyright owner can do these things, and if anyone else does, it’s copyright infringement. This exclusivity typically lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years.
- Ask copyright owners for permission: Obviously, if the owner of a copyright gives you permission to use their work, you can use it. Of course, they’re free to refuse permission if they want, or to charge money for it. Also, they can put restrictions on your use. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Find content that isn’t under copyright: This can sometimes be difficult, since it’s not always easy to figure out with accuracy when a piece of content was made. However, with images that you know to be extremely old, chances are good that their copyright has expired and it’s in the public domain. Also, if the creator of an image explicitly releases it to the public domain, it is not protected by copyright. Finally, images created by the U.S. government are not covered by copyright law.
- Find material that’s licensed for some public use: When you see the words “all rights reserved” next to a copyright notice, it means that the owner of the copyright is choosing to exercise all of the rights available under copyright law. They do not have to do this, however. Some organizations, such as Creative Commons, have drafted pre-written licenses that waive some of the rights available to them under copyright law, making it easier for others to use their works legally. If you see a piece of content under a Creative Commons license, it usually (but not always – read the license!) means that you are free to use the work as long as it is for non-commercial purposes, and you give attribution to the original creator.
- Understand fair use: “Fair use” is a principle in copyright law that serves a few purposes: first, it smoothes out some of the sharp edges that would lead to some pretty unfair results if copyright law were applied with zero flexibility. Second, it does a pretty good job of ensuring that copyright law does not significantly interfere with the First Amendment right to free speech. Basically, if you use a piece of copyrighted material for non-commercial purposes (education or criticism, for example), appropriate only a small portion of the overall work, and use it in a manner that doesn’t significantly affect the market value of the original work, you might be protected by fair use. However, it’s not a good idea to rely on this. Whether or not something constitutes fair use is an issue to be decided by a court, meaning you’ll have to go through a lawsuit just to figure out if you’re engaged in fair use – an expensive proposition.
While the odds of you facing a lawsuit for copyright infringement (as opposed to an informal request to remove the infringing material, with which you should probably comply if you have reason to believe that it’s valid) for using an image on your website might be low, they’re definitely greater than zero. Considering the potential harm a copyright infringement lawsuit can cause to you, a few commonsense measures, like the ones discussed above, can help minimize the chances of it happening.
This is a guest post by John Richards. He is a writer for LegalMatch.com and the LegalMatch.com Law Blog. The above article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed in any way as legal advice relevant to your particular situation. The only person qualified to give you legal advice is an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction, who has been apprised of all the relevant facts of your situation.