Copyright and Copywrong

February 26, 2017 by Jen

“It’s on the Internet, so it must be okay to use it.”

Nooooooooooooooooo. As a long-time writer and blogger who currently works in the publishing industry, this has to be one of the most cringe-worthy statements I hear from fellow bloggers.

And although most lawyers may be snarks, not all snarks are lawyers, so please be aware that nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. Also note that this post is also going to have more exceptions and disclaimers than a college student’s class presentation.

That being said, there are a lot of ways to copywrong, but there are also some rules of thumb that will help us all be more ethical on the Internet.

<soapbox>


myart1Mom was right: your drawings are the best.

I know the Internet has made it easier than ever to use a variation of right click + save as to make someone else’s image your own, but in this case, right click is usually the wrong click. Stick to your own photographs and illustrations whenever possible, or invest in a subscription to a stock image site. Trust me: the Internet will love your stick figures.

The Internet is wrong sometimes *gasp.*

If you’ve found the perfect image, look for a page on the site called “Terms of Use,” “Copyright Information,” “Licensing,” or “Use Guidelines.” If the site doesn’t have one, it’s likely that they are not in the business of distributing images. Even if they assert that an image is in the public domain, they may be misinformed. Not everything on Wikimedia Commons is free and clear, and every search engine has a disclaimer passing the buck to the user for verifying copyright status.

Pre-1923 is the place to be.

Add this one to the likes of, “In 1692 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and “Remember, remember the 5th of November.” For copyright, 1923 is the date to remember, because most works published in the United States before that date are in the public domain, meaning that the majority of copyright laws do not apply. (Disclaimer! Disclaimer!  Exception! Exception!)

Grandma Moses may seem like a sweet folk artist, but you don’t want to mess with her estate.

The word “published” is more vague than “mansplaining” when it comes to works of fine art, so tread carefully. BUT, if a 2D work of art is in the public domain, faithful replications such as photographs can’t be copyrighted either, so that simple photo of the Mona Lisa is probably safe. (Disclaimer! Exception!)

Take a hint from elephants: steer clear of the mouse.

Disney in particular is notorious for taking legal action to protect their trademarked characters, such as the princesses or Mickey Mouse. Sports teams are also invested in making sure that no one replicates their logos and mascots without paying licensing fees.

Remember the days of websites with autoplay, and channel that thought if you’re tempted to stray.

The copyright laws for musical works and sound recordings might be one of the strongest reasons we need librarians. So many different rights are involved that unless music is a central component of your creation, refrain from adding a soundtrack.


The bottom line is this: it’s your responsibility to educate yourself about the basics if you’re thinking about adding someone else’s materials to your creative work, whether text, image, audio, or video.

As a bonus, if you spend enough time slogging through the minutiae of copyright law, you’ll develop a practically unlimited font of snark to unleash upon the world. #originstory

You’re welcome.

</soapbox>

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