Copyright Basics: How to Avoid Copyright Violations

Organizations with an online presence often post images or articles found on the internet to their own sites. While the majority of postings are likely done with the best intentions, some may inadvertently violate copyright laws. The U.S. Library of Congress states, “Copyright protects text and pictures on websites just like books, CDs, DVDs, and works in other media are protected.” 

Copyright Law

Copyright laws can be complex, and the growth in social media has further complicated the issue. Having a fundamental understanding of copyright law and the protection it affords is essential before determining how to proceed.

In the United States, copyright protection is available to both published and unpublished “original works of authorship.” That includes literary, musical, graphic, photographic and other works of art. Among other rights, the copyright holder has exclusive rights to copy, sell and distribute the work.

Copyright protection begins once a work is fixed in a tangible form, such as when an image or song is captured on paper or electronically. The author does not need to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, although doing so offers him or her some added protection.   While including a copyright notice (typically, the © symbol) for a work is recommended, it is no longer a requirement to claim or maintain copyright protection. Simply because a work doesn’t include a copyright notice doesn’t mean that the work is available for public use.

What is Permissible?

Not all online posts and shares are likely to violate copyright regulations. Oftentimes it is acceptable (and at times encouraged) to include a link to public websites. However, the recommended practice would be to review the linked website’s policies, and, if there is any doubt, request permission. Some organizations, for a variety of reasons, restrict links to their sites.   What’s known as the “fair use” doctrine provides a defense to certain limited uses of copyrighted material. A common example of this is when text from a copyrighted book is included within the review of the work.   Although what constitutes fair use is difficult to determine, the following principle may be helpful. If copying the protected work could negatively impact the market for the original piece or generate income for the user entity, it’s less likely to be considered fair use.

If in Doubt, Check it Out

Making sense of copyright protection laws in today’s ever changing social media environment is challenging. When in doubt, erring on the side of caution and consulting a legal professional is always prudent.

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