Let’s talk about copyright on the web. We’ve all heard radio stations getting in trouble for using copyrighted images. So, I hope we know that it’s never ok to grab images that you or the radio station do not have the right to use. The quickest way for the radio station to be fined is using an image found within a Google image search.
Recently a station reached out with a copyright issue of a different nature. Another nearby news site was blatantly copying their content. So, they asked what our advice was in that situation.
Every country and state has its own rules regarding copyright protection. In some places, it’s illegal to give legal advice without being a trained and certified lawyer. Today we will be engaging in a simple discussion about general principles that may arise when other website owners potentially violate your copyrighted work.
Again, we are offering opinions, not legal advice. When facing any legal issue, always get the best professional legal advice. It’s improbable that you will find proper legal advice for your specific situation and location for free on the internet.
What Is Copyright?
Copyright.gov defines copyright as “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Copyright law covers many works, including paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, sound recordings, computer programs, books, poems, blog posts, movies, architectural works, plays, and so much more!”
It’s impossible to claim that copyright law does not apply to any piece of media (written text, image, audio, video, etc.) Even if you get media from free stock websites like Pexels.com, copyright still covers everything. If an image says, “free for personal or commercial use,” that’s still a copyright status. You have limited permission to use it. If you were to try selling that image or audio on your website, then they would have a claim for you to remove it or pay them a royalty.
Who owns a Copyright?
Once any piece of work is created, it’s covered under a creator/owner copyright. However, the work doesn’t fully belong to the creator if they are under contract to create the work for someone else. For example, you are making a graphic for the radio station website. Do you, the creator, own that image, or does the radio station? The radio station usually owns the image since you work for them. Copyright law allows ownership of content through “works made for hire,” which establishes that the employer owns works created by an employee within the scope of their employment.
Let’s say you created a client banner ad image for the radio station website that includes the client’s logo and information. Now, who owns the image? Technically, it’s still the radio station since they employ you. While the ad contains the client logo and information, they would need to get permission to use the banner ad image elsewhere.
Some might argue that the client is paying the radio station, so they would have legal rights to use the image as they wish. That might depend on if the ad creation was a part of their digital campaign promise. If these stipulations are not established in your radio station, you can see how things can get fuzzy very quickly.
That’s why it’s always best to get professional legal counsel in these matters.
Copyright Symbols and Copyright Notices
United States law once required copyright to be asserted by a copyright notice for the word to be copyrighted. The copyright symbol consists of a capital letter C circumscribed by a circle. It has been used to replace the word “Copyright,” but most people include it along with the word “Copyright.”
Using a copyright symbol or statement on your website to ensure copyright is no longer the case.
In most countries, your content is covered by copyright without any notice from when the work was published. So, if a website does not contain a copyright notice or a © sign, it does not mean that anything you see is free to use. The copyright notice can be useful for people who wish to know the copyright owner’s identity, so we’re not saying to remove it from your website.
The situation is similar with registered trademarks (TM) and service marks (SM). If such a mark is present, either in the form of a symbol or the word itself, somebody asserts ownership of it. However, none of these symbols are required to maintain ownership. If you can see or know something exists, it’s copyrighted.
If you are worried someone may copy your content, creating a copyright information page detailing what they can expect if your content is copied or misused is a good idea.
Is Copyright Registration Necessary?
We have already stated that copyright law protects your content once you create it. So, why would someone need to go through the process of obtaining a copyright registration?
Copyright registration means registering your work, logo, etc., with a governmental agency to ensure that it is cataloged somewhere that you are the copyright owner.
This registration is not free. The good news is that copyright registration is not something that has to be renewed every so often. It’s optional after 28 years if you want certain legal advantages.
A registered copyright is not “stronger” or “better” than an unregistered one. There is no additional protection either. What registration does is prove that you’ve registered as the official owner in case someone else has a similar claim on the item in question. Your registration will contain a registration and creation date, and those may be what disproves a false claim on your property in a court of law.
In the ’90s, I worked for a radio station in San Francisco called “Young Country.” The owner had a trademark on the term “Young Country” so that no other stations in the country could use it in their branding. This would be a reason for filing a copyright or trademark registration.
What is Copyright Infringement
Investopedia defines it like this, “Copyright infringement is the use or production of copyright-protected material without the permission of the copyright holder. Copyright infringement means that the rights afforded to the copyright holder, such as the exclusive use of a work for a set period of time, are being breached by a third party. Music and movies are two of the most well-known forms of entertainment that suffer from significant amounts of copyright infringement.”
Copyrighted.com says, “To understand copyright infringement, you must first know the rights and limitations of a copyright holder. It’s possible to engage in copying and distributing someone’s work without actually violating or infringing anything, so you’re not legally accountable. It’s also possible to be subjected to a legal process even if you had no intention or knowledge that you stole from the owner.”
You can see that I just used two direct quotes from two other websites. This is called fair use of protected content. Under fair use, if the original work serves to teach, be discussed and studied, be reported in the news, or be commented on in public discourse, then it may be used and shared without legal repercussions.
When citing another source, like a website, it’s always best to link back to that source. That helps the source website, as well as your own, with SEO, and it’s just the right thing to do.
How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?
Copyright.gov says, “Works created on or after January 1, 1978, have a copyright term of life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work, the term lasts for seventy years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, copyright protection is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.”
What if Your Content Is Used without Permission?
It’s best to call your legal counsel. Again, we are not giving legal advice but rather discussing best practices.
Someone likely had the mindset that “everything on the internet is free” and grabbed your content without thinking or knowing they were doing something illegal. Hopefully, they will react well to a politely worded letter or e-mail asserting your ownership of the content and asking that it be promptly removed. This is called a “cease and desist letter.” Any smart business should honor this without question. If you welcome your content as being on someone else’s website, you might want to ask them to include a link to your website so that they do not appear as the content creator.
If either of these actions does not work, or you’re faced with someone copying your work repeatedly, then it’s time to take appropriate legal action, so they will stop infringing on your rights. Your professional legal counsel will know the proper steps to take, including archiving screenshots of each offense.
As we said in the beginning and throughout this article, getting professional legal counsel regarding copyright and copyright law matters is best. Ensure that your team knows to never copy and paste something from the internet and only use content and images they create themselves. Even if you subscribe to a service to obtain content and images legally, it’s always best to still give proper credit. If you change services down the road, you might not remember where you got that specific image or piece of content.