Social Media & Copyright

This is one case where asking for permission is better than asking for forgiveness.

If it’s online, it’s fair game, right? Not so fast. People spend time and effort to create images, infographics, videos, blogs, etc, and it’s considered intellectual property. Stealing intellectual property, using it without permission, can bring hefty fines and legal fees. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Copyright?

The legal definition of copyright is: “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work).” Copyright protects authors/originators while allowing information sharing.

Copyright offers the owner exclusive rights. Copyright owners can:

  • Reproduce the intellectual property.
  • Create other works based on the copyrighted work.
  • Distribute, by sale, transfer of ownership, rental, lease, or lending, copies to the public.
  • Perform and/or display the intellectual property publicly.

How to Determine What’s Allowable

Clear-cut examples of infringement in social media particularly are hard to find because it’s determined on a case-by-case basis. In addition, copyright laws vary by country; these suggestions apply to the United States and Canada. The four factors judges consider are:

  • The purpose and nature of the use. Advertising and promotional use is expressly prohibited.
  • The nature of the copyrighted property.
  • The amount and substance of the copied material. Quoting a paragraph is unlikely to raise issues, while copying an entire chapter will.
  • The effect on the potential market. The impact it has on the originator’s income, reputation, or other factors are taken into account.

Creative Commons, Free Use, and Parody

On the flip side, there is free content online, or Creative Commons. Creators can waive all rights to their work and make it available in the public domain. It’s called “creative commons” and the content is always free to use – even without permission. Some sites aggregate free images for this purpose.

“Fair Use” guidelines were created to protect us when what we use enhances our work and allows us to copy or quote some of the work to illustrate a point. Some examples of commentary and criticism quotes, summaries, limited copying for educational purposes, and use related court documents.

Parody is protected use, and has more generous guidelines when it comes to the amount of material used.

To err on the side of safety, assume that all online content is protected by copyright, unless explicitly expressed as free by the owner.