What do you do when you need a photo for a post or piece of content? Do you search on Google for an image then “Save As” whatever looks good? You may not know that even if you search with Google Usage Rights adjustments, you may be using photos that you DO NOT have permission to use. The original creator has what’s called copyright, literally the right to produce copies. The creator owns it, it’s their intellectual property, and they have the legal right to defend it from theft and misuse. If you share someone else’s artwork or content without permission, you are infringing on their rights. (U.S. Copyright Office)
Don’t start sweating. We’ve all broken this at one time or another. Understanding copyright is really important but if you didn’t know, you’re just like most people. This topic isn’t taught in schools (unless you’re an artist, photographer, or lawyer) so I’ll take you to school right now. I’ll break down what you need to know and how to stay in the clear.
I’m not a lawyer but this information comes from my extensive teaching on this topic and how it interacts with digital and social media. Please talk to an attorney that specializes in copyright to obtain proper legal advice.
What is Intellectual Property?
Also known as IP, intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. IP is protected in categories that you may be familiar with: patents, copyright, and trademarks. (World Intellectual Property Organization) This enables creators to get recognized and earn money from their inventions and creations. IP is setup so that creatives and innovators can get rewarded for what they contribute to society.
Copyright is the legal term that means that creators have rights over their literary and artistic works. This is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. This IP law protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. (U.S. Copyright Office)
You create it, you own the copyright. There’s no need to register it, though it is recommended, or send it to yourself in the mail (a myth that still circulates). Copyright lasts from the moment of creation of the work until 70 years after the death of the author or artist, then it enters public domain. That state, public domain, simply refers to a work that is not under copyright. These public works may be used freely without gaining permission or paying the owner of the copyright. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.
The copyright symbol or sign, the letter “c” in a circle © is widely recognized but no longer required in most nations to assert a new copyright. (Wikipedia)
Trademarks are literal marks or a sign capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one enterprise from those of other enterprises (WIPO). You know what these look like. Think about the arches for McDonald’s, the swoosh for Nike, the fruit with a bite out of it for Apple, Inc., even the Disney font. (The Mouse House is very involved in copyright extensions, read about it here and here.) You know what brand it is when you see the mark or artwork.
These are also recognizable by the capital letters “tm” ™ or capitalized “r” in a circle ® symbols. The TM is generally used for unregistered trademarks or those still awaiting approval from the US Patent & Trademark Office. Those with the R are registered. (Wikipedia) You can do some research on existing trademarks by using this U.S. Patent & Trademark Office database.
Patents are a bit different but fall into the same protected class. This is an exclusive right granted for an invention, a product or process that provides a new way of doing something or offers a new technical solution to a problem (WIPO). The process of patenting an invention requires a public disclosure of technical information. (My favorite patent drawing.) It takes time, money, and does not guarantee riches.
There is no specific patent symbol though “patent pending” or “patent applied for” can be displayed on items. (Suiter Swantz Intellectual Property)
Fair Use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright protected works in certain circumstances. Examples of those circumstances are criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. (U.S. Copyright Office)
In each of these properties, whether it’s copyright, a trademark or patent, it’s up to the owner to defend. Someone steals lyrics to your song? You have to take them to court and prove it was theft in order to be renumerated. You found a product you didn’t make with your logo or mark on it? You must foot the legal bills to get them to stop. A company ripped off your idea for a product and put their name on it? You have to put in the effort to solve the situation. There are no guarantees that just because you own the IP, that you will always be successful in keeping it.
Staying On the Right Side of Copyright
You still need that photo, I know. Here are my tips on how not to steal, stay on the right side of the law, and still get what you need.
- Ask permission of the copyright holder. Ask if you may use their work. If they say No, don’t do it. Don’t steal from other people.
- Cite your source, tell us where you got that cool thing. They deserve credit and praise. You can support artists in this way.
- Create your own intellectual property (writing, photos, graphics, infographics, videos, etc.) so you don’t have to use that of other people. Think ahead and set up your own photoshoots.
- Hire a professional photographer. They’re pros for a reason. Support your local community and look great in the process. I do this about once every 18 months and I have a couple dozen amazing shots to use and add to my photo stock.
- Understand when your usage is fair use
- Investigate to see if the content you want to use belongs to someone:
- Use Creative Commons Search (more on this in a moment)
- Understand Creative Commons License 0 (more coming)
- Vet a collection of Creative Commons stock photo sites (I give you a link below)
Social media is particularly sticky when it comes to sharing responsibly. How do you share content without violating copyright on social channels? How much risk are you at for this? Every time we share content that doesn’t belong to us, we are at legal risk. It’s how much risk that matters.
If you are the original poster (you aren’t the creator but you see something cool and want to share it), please respect copyright. This is the person that’s most at risk for violating copyright laws, rather than the thousands or millions of people that are hitting the share button.
Most companies and brands that share their own content online WANT you to share their content. It benefits them if it drives viewers back to their website. Look for the Share button and share away.
What CAN You Share?
There’s this amazing non-profit organization called Creative Commons that’s “dedicated to building a globally-accessible public commons of knowledge and culture. (They) make it easier for people to share their creative and academic work, as well as to access and build upon the work of others.” They have licenses that show you how a piece of work can be used. This amazing graph gives a visual that makes it easy-to-understand. Teachers, this is for you!
They also offer a search function (Search Creative Commons) that allows you to look for content for reuse. Bookmark it!
My Very Favorite
There is a magical license that I want you to know about. It’s called Creative Commons License 0 or CC0. This designation by the original copyright holder means they’ve chosen to opt out of copyright and database protection. That they reserve No Rights, meaning you can use their works, edit them as you see fit, and that you don’t have to cite or pay the creator. This work is now in the public domain.
If you’ve ever been to Costco and gotten more than one free sample, you’ll understand how this works. You know that the company is offering free samples of their product in hopes that you pay for it after you’ve tried it. There are websites that allow photographers to post a collection of their works and offer them in the public domain. You and I can download those images because of that set-up.
Why would a photographer give away their content?
They’re looking for paying work and many vendors wanting to hire photogs can peruse those sites as well, and view their portfolios. It leads to work for the artist and we, the public in the domain, get the benefit of those free photos. Just like when you go to Costco for the free “Costco lunch.”
When I see websites that offer “free stock photos” I read the licensing information and bookmark them if they say they are CCL0. Sometimes they don’t use that exact phrase but the usage rights listed are true to the ethos of CCL0. If they don’t match, I don’t save them. A quick list of my favorites: Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay. I have SO MANY more resources so I made a Pinterest board. You must have a free account to access but it’s full of multi-media CCL0 and public domain resources. Bookmark this one too!
It’s a Big Deal
This is really important information with serious legal implications that the general public simply doesn’t have the opportunity to learn. If you own a business or market for an organization, you and your team need to understand intellectual property clearly.
Please let me know if: