I’ll be the first to admit, as a small business owner, law can feel daunting. There are basic legal protections that every small business owner and blogger should know, particularly those surrounding copyright and fair use. As a blogger myself at Glitter, Inc. and an attorney, I’ve come to understand the biggest legal pitfalls small business owners and bloggers alike may face — and you can protect yourself from them. So pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee (or tea), and learn a bit of copyright law. I promise you’ll be glad you got the 411!
When it comes to copyright and fair use, what you need to know is (1) how to protect yourself and your work (your work is yours and falls under your own copyright, and therefore should be protected), and (2) how to protect yourself from using other’s copyrighted work improperly (thus opening yourself to potential legal action from outside parties.)
So What is Copyright?
Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. As the owner of a copyright you also have the right to LIMIT its reproduction, distribution, and display.
Copyright laws were created to both protect and encourage the creation of “original works of authorship,” per the U.S. Copyright Office.
A few things to know …
Permissions on Your Own Site and Others: To protect your own work, add language on your site about your copyrighted material, and if and how you will allow readers/users to use your work (Are you okay with people republishing/posting your work if proper credit is given? Will you only allow the use of your work with explicit permission? Is your work completely off limits for any kind of re-publication?). The same goes for permissions on other’s sites. Many bloggers and business owners are a-okay with their images being pinned, tagged and re-used elsewhere, so long as they are given proper credit (i.e., a direct link). When someone re-pins and/or re-uses your work with credit, it can of course be seen as free marketing, and in today’s Pinterest-heavy world, that can be a great thing. The U.S. Copyright Office web site states, “Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission,” unless of course, that blogger has a disclaimer on their site allowing use of their images with proper credit – then you’re good to go.
Watermarking: If you are concerned about being credited on your own photographs, you can also add a watermark to all of your images, although many photographers and bloggers have been using watermarks less and less.
Contracts: Read contracts carefully. If you are working with a brand, remember that the contract they are sending you has been reviewed by a team of lawyers; i.e., they already have the upper-hand. Don’t agree to anything “in perpetuity” without first having a lawyer review the terms (for example, “The Blogger grants Company X the rights to use any and all imagery and content provided by and of Blogger, in print and/or for promotional use throughout the world, in all media in perpetuity.” This essentially means Company X can use your likeness, your images, and/or your content in anything they want forever and ever (without paying you anything additional).
Fair Use: When using images, quotes, an article, etc. from others, keep in mind that the law allows for the use of other’s work in your own work if and only if the use is “fair use” and you have transformed the work in some way. The way to determine whether something is fair to use (an image, an article, a quote, etc.) is to look at whether the material has been used to help create something new, or merely copied verbatim into another work. This gets tricky, and there is no black-and-white letter law on what constitutes “fair use” (it’s something a judge determines on a case by case basis), so be careful. Be sure you’re repurposing material in new and creative ways, and properly credit everything you use that is not yours (subject to that person’s permissions; i.e., check their site – they probably explicitly lay out what can and cannot be used, and how.) For the most part and as an example, don’t use cartoon characters or popular quotes on t-shirts you’re selling in your Etsy shop. Odds are, that cartoon character or celebrity quote has a big legal team behind it, and you don’t want to run into problems. Creating a collage for a blog post using inspirational images incorporating the color “emerald green,” and properly crediting each and every source (checking the original sites to be sure they are okay with re-use with proper credit): that would probably constitute fair use and is thus okay. There is always going to be grey area in the law – that’s the stuff a judge reviews and makes determinations on. Trust your gut, and if it feels troublesome, don’t do it or consult with your lawyer.
Giving Proper Credit: If you are a blogger, go back to your old posts and be sure you have accurately credited any images you have used in the past (be sure links aren’t broken, that they don’t lead to broken links or to Pinterest or Tumblr links — those aren’t good enough.) Proper credit should be given for every single photo in a collage or “inspiration” post as well. To this day, I’m still going back through old posts and fixing credits. Broken links happen to all of us. Credit should reach the original source (e.g., link directly to the wedding feature or photographer’s post when sharing images of a wedding, not just the pin you found on Pinterest of that wedding). When in doubt, over-credit: link to the original source, the photographer, the designer, the event planner, the florist, the venue, etc. and always be courteous. If an artist/designer/blogger/business owner with rights to something you’ve featured on your site or in your business asks you to correct a credit or link and/or asks you to take down the offending material, apologize and make the fix. Often, kindness and a little credit is all anyone is really looking for. The expense of an all-out legal battle is typically not worth it to most small business owners, so do the right thing and be kind in your approach.
The Bottom Line
Copyright is a notoriously complicated area of law, and as bloggers and small business owners, we are faced with copyright issues every day. It is inevitable that even good-intentioned people are going to make mistakes. The very best advice I can give you is to fix your mistakes when they are presented to you and ask that others do the same. Put everything in writing and act on your best behavior. We all hope that nothing escalates to a court of law, but you certainly don’t ever want a judge reading an e-mail exchange where you threw a tantrum. Trust your gut and protect your work.
Disclaimer: While I am a licensed Florida attorney, this article is based on general principles of law and is intended for information purposes only. By providing this article, I do not provide individualized legal counseling or representation and use of information in this article does not constitute an attorney/client relationship. I offer suggestions based on my own experiences, however I cannot provide legal advice outside the state of Florida. Please consult an attorney for more specific representation.