Some people have the idea that everything on the Internet is free. They see a photo they like, they take it for their own site. Some text sounds good, they copy and paste it into their own blog. They hear a song they like, they use it in their video.
Is this OK? Or is it theft?
Standard disclaimer before we proceed … Don’t take this as legal advice. I am not a lawyer. I’m only sharing what I’ve learned through research and experience. If you need advice about a specific situation, talk to a qualified copyright attorney.
What Is Copyright
In general, anything you create – be it an application, a blog post, a drawing, a video, or a musical composition – is immediately covered by copyright. That is, you have the right to determine who may use your work and under what conditions. (The exception to this is a work-for-hire; unless you’ve agreed otherwise, when you are hired to create a work for someone else, they own the copyright, not you.) While you may affix the copyright symbol © (or ℗ for sound recordings) to the work, it isn’t mandatory; not having the symbol does not mean the work is not protected under copyright.
Depending on the jurisdiction, copyright typically spans the lifetime of the author, and some period thereafter. In Britain, for example, the entire Sherlock Holmes catalog by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been in the public domain since the end of 2000. However, in the U.S., only those works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. Doyle’s Holmes stories published in 1923 and after are still protected by copyright.
Not everything you create is protected by copyright. Facts are not. Maybe you climbed Mount Everest and measured its height as 8,848 meters, and then published that figure in an article. Nothing prevents someone else from using that same figure without your permission.
Ideas are not protected by copyright. You may have a great idea for a movie about brave rebels fighting an evil empire that spans the galaxy. The fact that George Lucas used that idea for his Star Wars franchise doesn’t prevent you from taking a shot at producing a wholly original work based around the same premise. Nor does copyright prevent someone else from producing a work similar to your idea.
Copyright is not absolute. Others may be able to use your work in some way – referred to as fair use – without your permission and without violating your copyright.
Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs was not a copyright infringement of George Lucas’ Star Wars; it was parody, meant to exaggerate elements of Lucas’ story and take them to ridiculous extremes. Even a serious work may borrow from copyright material for the purpose of commentary or criticism. It would be near impossible to properly analyze another work without quoting from it to a degree. Quoting a few lines from a long poem may be permissible, while quoting the same number of lines from a short poem may be an infringement.
Granting A License
Various licensing systems have been devised to make sharing your work – or using someone else’s work – easier. These systems identify the work as protected, but clearly specify what you may and may not do with it without having to contact the original creator to ask permission.
One of the most popular licensing systems is Creative Commons.
Under this license you may grant a combination of permissions, allowing others to use your work in the way you specify.
- Attribution: The original creator of the work must be credited in the way they specify, such as by name or by a link to their site.
- ShareAlike: Others may share the work, but only under terms identical to those originally granted.
- NoDerivs: The work may not be altered; it must be used unchanged and in whole.
- NonCommercial: The work may be used for non-commercial purposes only.
The Creative Commons site also offers a great search feature that makes it easier to find content you can use without violating the creator’s copyright.
If you don’t want to restrict what other people do with works you’ve created you can always place your work in the public domain. Be aware, though, that once you release a work, either in the public domain or under a specific license, you may have little legal recourse to change the license or take back that work at a later date.
Getting What You Need
If you find a file online you want to use and there’s no indication of who owns it – there’s no copyright notice and no mention of a license – what should you do? Don’t assume the file is free to use; make an honest effort to find out who owns the copyright.
Begin by contacting the owner of the site where you found it. Of course, it’s possible the site owner just grabbed the file from somewhere else and doesn’t have any right to use it themselves, much less to grant that right to you. So rather than ask if you can use the file – to which they may respond, “Sure go ahead,” – ask if they know who the original copyright owner is. If you’re unable to track down the owner of the copyright and the file is not specifically shared under a license like Creative Commons, it’s best to move on.
If your use of a file requires attribution, be sure to provide it as requested, either by including the creator’s name or a link to their site somewhere in close proximity to the file.
Finding content you can use takes effort, especially if you have to track down and contact the legitimate copyright holder. If you’ve hired someone – to produce a video; build a web site; or write a white paper, brochure, or anything else – make sure they understand that whatever content they provide must be free of encumbrance. You don’t want the copyright holder coming to you later with a legal claim, demanding either removal of the work or monetary compensation.
Those who think intellectual property should be free likely have little intellectual property of their own. As a result, they don’t appreciate the effort that goes into creating content. Whether it’s the crown jewels, a car, or a file on the Internet, taking it without permission is theft.