Copyright is a complicated and convoluted topic but, at its most basic, there are two key concepts at play - you own content you have created, and if you want to use content created by somebody else you need to have their permission. (Or whoever owns the copyright; the two are not always the same.)
Gov.uk tells us the type of works automatically covered by copyright, and the standard length of time they are protected for:
- Original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work, including illustration and photography; plus Original non-literary written work, eg software, web content and databases - 70 years after creator's death.
- Sound and music recordings - 70 years from first publication.
- Film - 70 years after the death of the director, composer and screenplay author - and television recordings and broadcasts - 50 years from first broadcast.
- The layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works - 25 years from first publication.
Play It Safe
Ignorance of the law is no excuse, nor is the fact that lots of other people are breaking it. If you want to use content you haven't created, get permission. There are a number of ways to do this, including the obvious solution of asking the copyright holder directly.
Embed: You can embed from photo sharing websites and social media posts - by signing up to the network and enabling (or failing to disable) the option, the copyright holder may well have already agreed to this. Either way, the EU Court of Justice has ruled that hyperlinks and embeds are not copyright infringement. Here is an example of a Twitter embed:
Look cool this summer - check out my favess from the girls' @houseoffraser clothing range! https://t.co/mKQmWIfPFw pic.twitter.com/punKlrG4wC— Jessica Powell (@jess__powell) July 4, 2016
Credit and Attribution: Other types of Creative Commons licence allow you to use and even modify content so long as credit is given. If content isn't issued with a licence, check out the copyright holder's blog / website / photo sharing profile / etc to see if they have made a statement about it. On my own blog, for example, I've stated that I'm happy for people to share, quote and reproduce unaltered content without asking permission, providing they credit me.
Public Domain: You do not need permission to use content with expired or fully relinquished copyright. Early photographs, for example, or content which the copyright holder has relinquished under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence. More and more people are offering free content these days for exposure and so on - I have an album of images I've made CC0 on Flickr.
Fair Dealing: Similar to the concept of 'fair use' in the USA, fair dealing allows you to reproduce content in certain circumstances. Non-commercial research, for example, or for the the purpose of parody, caricature, or pastiche. You can also reproduce content for the purpose of criticism or review, so long as it was publicly available and you credit the source. The same is true for reporting on current affairs - except in the case of photographs.
Shades of Grey
The problem is that the law has not kept pace with technological developments, and many common internet practices such as screenshotting and reposting 'viral' content occupy something of a legal grey area. They may technically be copyright infringement, but getting a court of law to confirm it is another matter. Take the statement by Ed Vaizey that screenshotting and sharing someone else's snapchat could result in a prison sentence for copyright infringement. While theoretically true, the actual chances of it happening are slim to none. (Read more at Legal Cheek.)
It's all complicated further by the differences in copyright law around the world, and the global nature of the internet.
There are multiple instances on this blog where it could be argued that I have broken copyright law. I have scanned in vintage adverts and magazines to make them widely available (e.g. issues of Photo-Play and My Guy), I have used publicity and promotional images without permission (e.g. stock photos of items I've purchased), and I have lifted archived material from the Wayback Machine to compile resources on rare dolls and toys.
If challenged, I would argue fair dealing, implied consent, and more fair dealing, but I recognise that a court could easily find against me. My labels stating source, denying ownership, and offering to take down any image should the copyright holder be unhappy do not give me real protection, nor would my argument that wherever possible I use my own / public domain / or embedded content. For right or wrong, I knew the risks and made an informed decision - you may well find yourself doing the same on a case by case basis.
So, you went ahead and used copyrighted material. Now the copyright holder has found out and isn't happy. What happens next?
They might simply send you a message asking you to take the material down, or if you keep it up to credit them properly - providing you comply, that could be the end of it. Alternatively, they could take a more formal route, billing you for damages and threatening court action. (If you have made profit from using the content, they can bill you for this too.)
You can contest the action or, if you feel you are in the wrong, admit your mistake, apologise, and offer to settle out of court - providing their damages claim is reasonable. Copyright holders can't just charge you whatever they like, it needs to be proportional to their loss of profit and incurred costs. For more information, check out the Citizens Advice pages on the topic.
How To Protect Your Content
On the flip side, you can also find yourself a victim of copyright infringement. Here are a few precautionary measures you can take.
Stake Your Claim: There are a number of steps you can take to make your work more difficult to steal. You can disable right click on your blog (though it's not advised due to irritation it engenders and the ease with which you can bypass it), use code to stop people saving images to Pinterest, and use alt tags and change the file names of images to make your ownership clear. For instant impact, you could add watermarks.
Make Your Position Clear: You can preempt a lot of problems by clearly stating your position on the reuse and modification of your content. This can be something as simple as 'all rights reserved' in your footer, or a more elaborate description of what you do and don't allow on your contact page - you are still protected by copyright without it, but it can make your life easier if you have a statement to point to when you encounter instances of infringement. Here is mine:
Be Proactive: Use free online tools like Copyscape and TinEye to check if your work is being copied. Read the T&Cs of the social media networks and photo sharing sites you sign up to, and ensure you're not unintentionally giving away your copyright. Similarly, read the fine print of any contracts, or confirm with collaborators what rights they expect to have over your content in exchange for their payment in cash or kind.
Seek Resolution: If you discover that somebody has infringed your copyright, take a deep breath and try not to go in with all guns blazing. You can always up the ante if the infringer refuses to co-operate, but treating a fan who made an honest mistake the same as some shady spam blog is not going to do your reputation any favours. For more on the actual process, check out the copyright service website.
Think Before You Post: Even if you're in the right, it can be difficult to get any resolution. If you absolutely do not want somebody to take a piece of content, think very carefully before uploading it to the internet. No matter what protections you put in place, no matter how completely the law is in your favour, there will be someone, somewhere, who has the knowledge and the brass to take and reproduce it anyway.
* Please note that this post does not constitute legal advice. *
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