Everything seems free on the internet. And to a large extent, that is true — in a limited way. It's like visiting a free art gallery: you can look for free, but you can't cart off a Monet that you think would look really nice in your living room. Much of the content of the internet is free to consume but not to use. This is especially an issue for images, but it applies just as much to other forms of media and words themselves.
It isn't just a question of the law, however. It seems every few months, some writer is discovered to have been plagiarizing the work of other writers. This is not just embarrassing; it often destroys careers — just ask Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. So you really want to be careful. Just the same, what is and is not copyright infringement is often not that clear. We will try to guide you through these difficult waters.
There is a big difference between quoting a small section of someone else's article and elaborating on it, and just quoting a whole article.
On the other hand, the entire blogging world is built upon people writing articles about other articles that people have written. (See below under “Fair Use.”) So don't be afraid to engage with others on the internet. That is one of the best things about it. But there is a big difference between quoting a small section of someone else's article and then elaborating on it, and just quoting a whole article — even if you link to the original article.
Be Extra Careful With Digital Content
The internet is a relatively new frontier; the web even newer. Because of the unique nature of digital media, it is fairly easy to steal protected works. You could photocopy a book, bind it together, and sell it — but it would take a lot of work, look terrible, and probably cost more than the original. But online, an exact copy can be made of a work in seconds, and it can be distributed to millions in minutes. This potentially does a great deal of damage to the owner of the work — and that could make you liable for it. Thus, you want to be careful.
Here are some tips for avoiding copyright problems:
- Don't use material that is clearly labeled as copyrighted.
- Don't assume that something that doesn't include a copyright notice isn't copyrighted. A copyright notice is not necessary.
- If in doubt, ask for permission. People are often surprisingly nice about this.
- Don't assume that not knowing who owns the copyright changes its legal status.
- Remember that just because your site isn't commercial doesn't mean you are any less constrained by copyright law.
- Find good sources for free materials. We discuss this more below under “Free Content.”
- If someone complains that you are using their protected work, remove it.
For more information on this, check out this page from the Copyright & Fair Use website at Stanford University, Websites: Five Ways to Stay Out of Trouble.
Fair use is a complicated subject. However, there are resources you can use to learn more about this complex issue.
In general, video is easy. Most sharing services like YouTube and Hulu want others to use their videos. Of course, these videos can't be downloaded onto your website and served by you. They must be embedded. This is because the services get ad revenue from the videos regardless of where they run. So just use whatever system the service provides and you should be free and clear. This is often true of audio as well.
For most website owners, the main copyright issue involves images. After all, the major search engines allow you to search for images. It's so convenient! But with just a little bit more work, you can stay on the right side of the law. For example, in Google, you can click on the “Search tools” button and this will allow you to filter images by “Usage rights.” There are a number of options there, but the broadest is, “Labeled for reuse with modification.” That means you can use the image and modify it as you see fit.
Public Domain vs Creative Commons
But there is a little more to it than that. Just because you can use an image for free and modify it, doesn't mean you can use the image any way that you want. This is the distinction between something that is in the public domain and something that is licensed under the Creative Commons. Many people provide images for use for free, but still want to be credited, for example. You can read all about it at the Creative Commons website.
But it is easier just to use a website like Pixabay, which will tell you exactly what (if anything) you need to do to use the image. Wikipedia has a very useful page, Public Domain Image Resources, which provides many dozens of such resources for finding free images.
There is no doubt that copyright is a big and often annoying issue. But it protects you as well as everyone else. So take care just as you would have others take care when dealing with your work. For more information on this subject, check out the Copyright Website.