How to Protect Yourself—And Your Business—From Copyright Infringement Claims

How do I protect myself (and by business) from a copyright claim? This is a question you should be asking yourself if you have any internet presence. Whether it is something as significant as a full-featured web application, a simple blog, or even just a Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn account, you need to make sure you’re not accidentally (or intentionally) stealing someone else’s copyrighted work. Here’s a quick primer to keep you out of trouble.

Don’t copy another person’s work. Simple as that, right?

Well there’s actually a lot more to it. Copyright law in the United States is governed by Title 17 of the United States Code. The law protects all types of creative works, ranging from the written word, to drawings and photographs, to videos, and of course the often publicized sound recordings. On a very basic level, a copyright gives the author the right to modify, distribute, and perform their work however they choose. Of course, the author can also license her work to others, and can sell her work to whoever she wants. And she can send out cease and desist letters to, or sue, people who infringe on her copyright.

And that brings us to the three main areas you’re most likely to get in trouble with copyright law on the internet:

Written Content, Blog Posts, Articles

Here’s an easy pit to fall into. You find a blog post you really like that would fit absolutely perfectly with your blog’s theme. So you say, whatever, the post is really old, the original author probably isn’t getting too much traffic to it anymore, I’ll just copy it on my blog. No harm done, right?

Congratulations, you’ve just plagiarized the original author’s content and violated their copyright. Feel free to take the general idea of their post, but make sure you put it into your own words—that’s the easiest way to protect yourself from a copyright claim for stealing another’s written work.

Art, Photography, Videos, and Music

We have a very similar situation to the above. You see a picture you really like on Flickr, DeviantArt or some other image site. You like it so much, you feel it needs a new home on your own website. So you download it from the image hosting site, never bothering to read the license agreement, and upload it to your own site. The photographer sues you for infringing on his copyright, and you wonder why.

If you find a photo you want to use on your site, just contact the photographer and ask them if you can use it on your own site. The same simple technique goes for art, videos, and music (though be careful with videos and music, as there may be a number of parties who actuallyown the copyright). As long as the art isn’t for sale somewhere like a stock photo site, most artists will gladly let you post their picture so long as you give them a link back to their site. And if they don’t, find another artist who will let you use their picture instead.

HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Other Code

There’s been some debate over the years about whether web design code is copyrighted. The general consensus is yes, the scripts, codes, and other programming that goes into designing and developing a website are protected by copyright law—although the general look of the website (two column layout like our site, for example) is not.

So how do you get around a claim of copyright infringement even though you see a website you really like and you want to incorporate some of those design elements into your own site? Use their site as inspiration, but don’t copy directly from the CSS or HTML files when incorporating similar elements into your own site. Sure, you can view those files to figure out the general way the developer accomplished her task, but stay on the safe side and don’t copy her code.

Above all else, if you are unsure about whether something is copyrighted, play it safe and assume it is. And if you do find yourself embroiled in a copyright infringement suit, you would like to register a copyright for your own work, or you are concerned about whether something is copyrighted or not, contact a copyright attorney.

Photo courtesy: Instant Vantage

Eric Norton

Eric Norton

Business & Trademark Attorney at Norton Law Corporation
Eric Norton is a business and trademark attorney, and the founder of Norton Law Corporation, a modern law firm designed to help entrepreneurs with their legal needs. Eric also enjoys photography, gaming (tabletop and video), watches, and good design.
Eric Norton

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