Sharing and republishing content happens all the time on the internet. However, you need to keep copyright law in mind when sharing and republishing content you don’t own. Below are six essential facts about copyright law, plus six tips for staying on the right side of it whenever sharing and republishing articles, images and presentations and other content.
Copyright literally means the right to copy. It applies to reproduction (e.g., photocopying, photographing and digitizing), performing in public, publicly displaying, adapting, translating and more. Copyright applies to work in traditional print media and on digital platforms like your enterprise’s intranet, website or social media. Most forms of creative expression are subject to copyright protection.
Like many legal issues, the matter of appropriate usage of copyright-protected works is nuanced, and the answer to many questions about usage within the copyright law is the ever popular, “It depends.”
6 Essential Facts about Copyright
There are whole books and courses written on various aspects of copyright, but these six points are a good starting point for developing your copyright mindset.
- Copyright applies to a work as soon as it’s created and “fixed” (i.e., written on paper or saved to a hard drive, disk or memory card). Use of a copyright symbol, ©, or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office isn’t required for copyright protection to exist.
- The duration of copyright in the U.S. is the author’s life plus 70 years, often referred to as life-plus-seventy.
- A work is in the public domain after the copyright duration period expires, or sometimes because it wasn’t subject to copyright protection in the first place (e.g., many U.S. government works).
- Copyright first belongs to the author of the work, in most cases. However, sometimes the author assigns their rights to someone else. Or, in some employment and commission situations, copyright belongs to the employer.
- Copyright also involves moral rights, which provide authors the right to have their name on a work, to use a pseudonym or be anonymous, and the right to prevent modifications to a work that might be prejudicial to their reputation. In the U.S., moral rights apply only to authors of works of visual art, who can choose to waive them.
- Under U.S. copyright law, you can use the concept of fair use to defend your use of copyright-protected materials without obtaining permission. A fair use determination involves various levels of analysis, and only a court of law can determine if you applied fair use correctly.
You may also be interested in our article Legally Using Images in Presentation Slides.
6 Copyright Tips when Sharing and Republishing Content
- Start with the assumption that copyright applies. Always assume that any image or other work you find online or elsewhere is copyright protected and you need permission to use it. Then check to see if the work is in the public domain and freely available.
- Ask for permission. Don’t use copyright-protected works unless you have permission from the copyright holder. Check to see if your enterprise has a copyright permissions procedure; if not, develop your own. Remember that being unable to locate a copyright owner or not receiving a response to your request doesn’t allow you to use copyright material. Consider alternatives as discussed below.
- Consider alternatives. There are numerous alternatives to getting permission from a copyright holder to use a work, including:
- Linking — You can link to a legitimate source of the work, such as on the creator’s or copyright owner’s website. Avoid other sites where the link might have been used without permission.
- Use just the facts and data — You can state facts, history, news or events as long as you don’t reproduce the exact source where you found them.
- Limit usage — Generally, use of small portions of a work may be acceptable, such as a short quotation or a thumbnail print of an image.
- Describe and summarize — Describe the image or provide a brief summary of an article.
- Create your own — Can you present the data in a chart that you create yourself? Can you take your own photograph? Bear in mind that your employer could own copyright in any works you create in the course of employment.
- Use a stock photo agency or a Creative Commons license — Does your organization have an account with a stock photo agency that has an image that suits your purpose? Can you find a suitable work that’s covered by a Creative Commons license? In either case, read the terms and conditions of the license, and honor any restrictions that apply. Neither of these licenses means automatic permission, or permission in all circumstances.
- Does fair use apply? If you’re using the work only in the U.S., you could apply the fair use provision of the Copyright Act, if your enterprise supports this. Consult your internal policy, copyright specialist or legal counsel before proceeding.
- Ascertain that prior permission applies. If you obtained permission to use an image in the past, what was the use and for how long? Making different use of a work, using it in different locations or for different lengths of time could require separate permission.
- Don’t change images. Permission to use a photo in your presentation or brochure doesn’t automatically allow you to re-color, crop or otherwise manipulate and morph it. Seek permission first.
- Think globally. The information presented above applies to use of copyright-protected works in the U.S., but copyright law varies among countries. There are differences in copyright durations, moral rights and ownership of works created in employment, just as a few examples. The copyright law of the country where a work is used applies to that use. Therefore, if employees in the U.S., Canada and France will use the material on your intranet, you must ensure you’re abiding by the laws of each of those countries.
Yes, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to copyright, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the copyright basics. It’s also good to know when and where to turn for guidance when issues come up.
You might also find our article 6 Essential Tips for Legally Using Images helpful.
Learn more about how your organization can comply with copyright law in our eTutorial Developing a Copyright Policy or Guidelines. By completing this course, you will have a draft copyright policy or guidelines for your library or organization.