Never before in history has so much content been available for our enjoyment, education, and enrichment. Countless creatives display their skills and dedication across an array of mediums, both traditional and digital. You might ask what the value of that creativity is, especially when it’s in such abundant supply. And is it really so bad to use some of it for our own purposes – perhaps even in our own businesses?
What is Intellectual Property?
In the simplest terms, intellectual property refers to anything created from the mind, such as artwork and photography, branding and design, music and audio, trade secrets and patents, software, video, books, and even blog articles (such as this one).
Even if it isn’t a registered trademark, it’s still someone’s creation and falls under general copyright laws – posing fair challenges about its use from both an ethical and legal standpoint.
Full disclosure: I’m not legally qualified to advise on Intellectual Property Law – I’d always suggest that you seek out experienced professionals who can assist you in that capacity if you find yourself needing legal advice or representation.
For this article, I’ll be focusing more on the ethical considerations of intellectual property theft, and how to ensure that we don’t become part of the problem.
What’s the harm if I use someone else’s content?
“So, I used a couple of photographs from Google Images on my website – what’s the big deal?”
Yes, some clients have asked that, and more than once. And, in a society which throws content at us from every angle, I understand the source of their indifference.
The problem with this indifference is that we forget the creator. No, I’m not getting all religious here! I mean, of course, the owner of the intellectual property. Theft in any form is not a “victimless crime”. The creativity they’ve developed for its composition, the time they’ve dedicated to its creation, and the tools they’ve invested in for the sake of its final presentation, have value. Just because something is intangible or appears relatively undiscovered doesn’t mean it doesn’t have worth.
Not giving proper credit where it’s due (be that attribution or financial compensation) to the owner is devaluing their work for your gain. It’s morally akin to hearing an idea from a colleague before a meeting, then interrupting their attempts to share it as you explain that same idea, presenting and claiming it as your own. And then perhaps being congratulated and put forward for promotion. Rude and insulting, right?
How can I avoid Copyright Infringement?
Of course, not all illegal use of someone else’s content is intentional. Many people don’t know the proper etiquette and make corner-cutting assumptions. For example, I might hear:
- “Here are some images from Google I’d like to use for my website.”
- “This graphic would be great if we could edit out the watermark!”
- “I love that website – can we use a design exactly like that?”
- “I’d like to use [insert premium font here] for my branding – but I don’t have a licence, can we find it for free somewhere?”
- “Do we need to pay for that plugin, or can we find it free from a third-party website?”
- “For Social Media posts, can I copy and paste from other websites that aren’t mine but are relevant and informative?”
- “Can I use quotes on my website without having to credit the author?”
Digital marketing, by its nature, provides a LOT of opportunity for intellectual property theft. And the truth is that yes, I could edit out watermarks, find ‘free’ sources for premium assets, and copy designs line-for-line to make my clients happy (or even reduce my own costs). But as a creator myself, there are boundaries I refuse to bend or cross – and frankly, you shouldn’t, either.
Always be sure that content you’re using is free to use without attribution (or you’re willing to give one, for example, as an image caption), or you’re purchasing a licence appropriate to its use. Licences may be a one-time fee or a recurring monthly or annual subscription.
It’s important to note here that Google Images is not a ‘free library’. Just like text search results, the image search results display relevant images found across the web and does not automatically permit you to use them for your business (be that your website, social media, or otherwise). There are free image resources out there, and we recommend Unsplash, Pexels, or Burst, as they’re clear about their availability for commercial use. Do keep in mind that other websites which advertise “free” images may have restrictions for commercial use – always read the label!
What happens if I use someone else’s creations?
Besides feeling unoriginal, ashamed, and guilty (I hope), there are, of course, legal ramifications to theft. Typically, this will start with a Copyright infringement (aka “cease and desist”) notice. This is a courtesy, and, if you receive one, you should immediately remove the stolen assets from all commercial use, such as marketing and branding. If it’s fair to assume it’s been beneficial to your business, they may also ask you to pay compensation for your “ill-begotten gains”.
At this point, you may be able to settle or come to a back-dated licencing agreement, but you’ll want to seek legal advice for the best route.
Naturally, ignoring or refusing these requests will probably land you in court (or at least with an official order stamped by a judge). Under civil law in the UK, the courts may order you to pay damages. As Criminal Action, you could face unlimited fines and up to ten years in prison (although this is usually limited to significant and organised fraud, such as mass-piracy). The costs, including legal representation, can still be pretty steep – at which point, you’ll really wish you’d just paid a licence fee or reached a fair settlement.
How can I avoid someone stealing my Intellectual Property?
Quite simply, you reasonably can’t. If you’re an artist, you can watermark your images or only provide low-resolution samples, but that’s often not ideal. If you’re an author, you could avoid publishing easily pirated e-book formats, but you’ll probably lose out on a large piece of your potential market. There’s also nothing to stop someone from investigating the code on your website (simply due to the nature of websites), pulling not only text content but also image assets, video, audio, fonts, and even the overall design of the website itself.
What you can do is run regular checks on your content – text and image searches, in particular (you can even use your image to search for similar images). Grammarly Premium has an excellent Plagiarism checker if you’re worried someone else is using your articles and tells you exactly where you can find the stolen content.
If you find your creations out there in the wild – do try to contact whoever is using it, and ask them to remove it with a cease and desist notice. If you’re unable to contact them directly, also keep in mind that many platforms have a ‘report’ feature available. If you hit a dead-end and your assets are still in use elsewhere, it’s probably time to get legal help.
When is the use of someone else’s content justified?
There are a few ‘fair use’ cases, including:
- For research, or private study
- For criticism, review, or quotation
- To report current events (but this doesn’t apply to photography)
However, this is always open to interpretation. There are also limits on how much content you can use for each of these cases.
The safest way to acquire permission to use an IP asset is to ask. If you’d like to use someone else’s work, but there isn’t an available licence, contact the company directly and ask if you can make a financial agreement, or if you can at least give attribution and a backlink to the source.
Of course, if there’s a licence available, buy it. If you’re not sure what kind of licence you need, ask – it’s a sales question, and they’ll be happy to respond!
Have you been a victim (or even an accidental perpetrator) of copyright infringement, or worried you might be? What did you do?