Copyright Shoplifting

As an IT Project Manager and Web Developer, there are those times when you feel that your client’s actions are hurting themselves.  Often those times are when they post the wrong thing to Facebook or Twitter, but more often than not, it is when they use someone else’s copyrighted work without expressed permission from the original owner.

That being said, I would like to go over a few myths and misconceptions about using material that you find out on the Internet.  I am going to address the use of material as to how it relates to using it on your commercial website.  If you are selling something and using a website to promote the sale of your product or service, you own a commercial website.  Laws for use of copyrighted work differ for commercial websites than that of a news agency blog or parody website.  The key factor is in using someone else’s work for the purposes of making you money, directly or indirectly.

PICTURES:

This seems to be where a large amount of bloggers, self-designed website owners and social media amateurs have problems.  

“I didn’t think it was copyrighted” or “The picture didn’t have a copyright notice on it”

Assume that EVERY picture that you see is copyrighted.  An individual’s picture or photograph becomes protected by copyright the moment they post it to the web.  It gives them two basic rights.  It gives them the exclusive right to use their own work for whatever purpose them deem.  It also gives them the right to control how their work is used, if at all, by others.  Legally in the USA, everything created after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected automatically.  This is what was agreed by most countries in what is called the Berne Convention.

It used to be that there were certain requirements to copyright a work online.  In recent years, that has changed.  With photograph, it is far too easy to take a picture from a website and post it somewhere else.  It is also far too easy to remove the &(c) 2014 XYZ Studios& or similar from an image, if it was there in the first place.  Therefore, courts are now widely accepting the fact that protecting your work with these copyright marks is no longer always possible.

“It was posted to ten different websites, so I thought it was okay to use.”

Just because ten people jump off a bridge, doesn’t mean that you have to as well.  In recent years, we have seen companies suing multiple defendents in the same legal action.  It doesn’t mean that you will lose in court, but it does mean that you will end up having to get an attorney and deal with it.  So, if paying a $10,000 attorney retainer is worth using a small holiday graphic on your Facebook page, good luck.  It is also a violation of most social media Acceptable Use Policies for a business to use material that does not belong to them.  In most cases, if you are posting something like that to your personal social media page, you will not have problems.  When you own a business, things are uniquely different.

“It’s not like I am selling the picture or anything.”

This really does not matter.  However, it may effect the damages you have to pay to the owner in court.  You may also have to pay excessive damages if it can be proven that you diminished the value of that person’s work by reposting it to your website or using it commercially.  Protecting yourself and your business from complaints is equally important.  Although in most court cases, a &fair use& determination is usually based on the commercial value of the picture, do you really want it to go that far?

“I took the picture down, so they can’t sue me.”

This isn’t always true.  As long as the owner can prove that you used his copyrighted picture or work, he can pursue damages against you.  Taking a picture down on your own without having to be asked to do it, does make things easier.  The owner of a protected work may also serve your website Internet Service Provider (ISP) what is called a &DMCA Request&.  In short, this is a formal request to remove copyrighted material from a website or to alternately shut down the offending website.  What your website ISP chooses to do often depends on the amount of material that the owner is indicating that you have used without permission.  As an example, a few years back while working for a manufacturer in the bath & spa industry, they asked me to serve a DMCA Request on a website and their provider who was using about 300-400 of their product images without their permission and inconsistent with their brand.  The website owner’s ISP shut the websie down until the owner removed every image.  They turned the website back on only after it was confirmed by our staff that the material was completely removed.  For more information on the Digital Milennium Copyright Act (DMCA), follow the links here:DMCA/Digital Milennium Copyright Act.

“It’s not like it is a crime or anything.”

That isn’t necessarily true either.  The United States has deemed any copyright violation that exceeds $2500 and 10 copies, a felony.  Understand that federal laws are tricky.  This law has remianed for the most part untested, but again, this is not something you want to be tested out on you.  The best way to look at this is this.  Using someone else’s work without their expressed permission is stealing.  A photographer or graphic artist’s work product is their pictures or clipart.  In most cases, they charge for that product based on the time it took them to create it.  Reproducing it or reposting it without their permission is no different than walking into your business and taking your work product off your shelves and walking out the door.  It may be a hard concept to adjust to, but it is understandable.

There are a few things you should also know about all of this…  In most cases, it isn’t just yourself and your business that you take down.  A copyright holder can also hold the web developer of your website copable, as well as your Internet Service Provider (ISP) in some cases.   BitLaw has an article on this in their ISP Liability section.  Repeated problems with using other people’s copyrighted work is usually grounds for suspension of your acocunt with most service providers.  Our company, like many others, has a zero tolerance policy.  We will warn you once, and then we will suspend the account.  One of the primary reasons we have adopted this policy is because most of us here are also graphic artists or photographers, so we have experienced theft of our work product at some point and have had to work to get it removed from a website.

Overall, there are many resources out there to educate yourself on the topic of copyright.  If you are using the Internet today for either a commercial website, social media, or just surfing the Internet, you need to know what is legal and what is not.  Some of the best resources we have found are listed within this article.  Hopefully you will take the time to educate yourself on the subject so that you can avoid legal problems in the future.

I will post more on copyright and alternate solutions to using graphics you find online by searching Google in my next post titled, “Where Can I Get Quality Graphics Online?”.  If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.