11 Common Myths about Online Content and the Law

August 29, 2016
11 Common Myths about Online Content and the Law

Few topics today are subject to so much confusion and misinterpretation as copyrights and digital media.

Many people have the incorrect belief that digital content such as photographs, videos, blog posts, ebooks, and articles can be copied or republished. They assume that because the content was voluntarily placed online by the owner, or shared on social media, or appears in Google, that it is okay to use it.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. There are serious legal implications to using someone else’s content. Copyright law protects the creator of the digital content. A special federal law, called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), requires search engines, hosting companies, and other entities to remove content that infringes upon the owner filing what’s called a “takedown notice.”

You and your company could be subject to hefty financial penalties, lawsuits, legal fees, your site being taken offline, negative publicity, and other implications for copying, embedding, republishing, or otherwise using someone else’s creative work without express permission of the owner.

Here are 11 myths to remember about digital content—and the truth—to keep you or your team out of trouble:

Myth 1: It’s fine to use a work as long as it doesn’t have a copyright notice on it.

Incorrect. A copyright notice is not essential to the owner’s legal rights. As a general rule, under U.S. law, the creator of the work owns its copyright upon creation regardless of whether he or she places the © symbol or the word “copyright” on it.

Myth 2: An image is “royalty free,” so that means it is free. Right?

Wrong. “Royalty free” is one of the most misunderstood phrases on the Web. “Royalty free” doesn’t mean 100% free. Rather, it simply means that you don’t have to pay ongoing royalties based on volume of usage. However, you still need to gain the legal right to use the work in the first place. For example, with a royalty-free stock photograph, you’d be required to purchase a one-time license to that image.

Myth 3: My company is small, or I’m a blogger, so the owner won’t mind.

Not true. The Web is replete with examples of solo bloggers being hit with claims for thousands of dollars because they copied a single photograph or article without permission.

Myth 4: It’s alright to republish or copy content as long as I include a link back to the original source.

Linking back is not a legal defense. It merely makes it easier for the owner to discover your infringement, as they can track you through the link.

Myth 5: The Web is vast, and the owner will never find out.

You’re confusing luck (no one’s caught you yet), with the law. Claims have been raised months, even years after digital content was first used without permission. The more times you infringe, the more chances of getting caught.

Myth 6: Others do it, so it must okay.

Hmmm . . . . Someone robs a bank and gets away with it, so it must be okay to rob banks? I don’t think that logic will fly. Besides, how do you know the party uploading that movie, copying that photograph, or republishing that article didn’t get permission?

Myth 7: I found the photograph on Google, so it must be acceptable to use it.

Notice that Google now includes a small disclaimer at the bottom of its image search results “Images may be subject to copyright.” ‘Nuff said.

Myth 8: The content was shared on social media, so the owner gave permission to use it.

There’s a difference between a limited social share and lifting content or a photo and placing the entire item in your own site or using it for other purposes. Retweeting a post from the owner’s blog is one thing. Copying that blog post in its entirety or republishing the image from it on your own site is beyond the scope of social sharing.

Myth 9: There’s a Creative Commons license attached to the content, so it is fine to copy or use it.

There isn’t enough space in this article to describe all the pitfalls of relying on a Creative Commons license for something you found online. Let me give you one pitfall: What if a thief stole the content and posted it online, marking it as “Creative Commons”? If the person who posted it didn’t own the content in the first place, that doesn’t give you a legal right to use the content. Here’s another pitfall: there are various levels of Creative Commons licenses. Do you really know the difference between an “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” (CCBYNCSA) license and an “Attribution-NoDerivs” (CCND) license? Do you know it well enough to meet all legal requirements? Read more about Creative Commons pitfalls.

Myth 10: I found an image, music clip, or video clip on a free stock website, so it’s fine to use it.

There are nearly 100 sites to help you find images to use, and quite a few of them are free. However, how do you know that the owner gave permission for that digital work to appear on the free site in the first place?

Always deal only with reputable stock sites or government sites where the image is available according to law. Free is not free if you end up paying a claim later or incur expenses and inconvenience from your site being taken offline, after a takedown notice is filed.

Myth 11: I received a DMCA takedown notice, but it’s fine to ignore it.

Never ignore a takedown notice. There are various implications. For instance, you might receive a removal notice from Google that it has removed a page of your site from its index. (Google received roughly 92 million removal requests during April 2016 alone!) Other takedowns could result in your hosting company being required to take your entire website offline. Why risk the disruption to your business, while you frantically try to get your site back up or that all-important product page back into the Google index?

These are just some of the things every business owner needs to know about copyright and digital media. But here’s the most important thing to know: The best way to protect your business is to check with your lawyer to make sure your practices are not putting your business in jeopardy.

This article was originally posted on Inc.

If you think information on the internet is free for copying or reposting, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise. Here are the ins and outs of what you can repost.

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