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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Avoiding Copyright Infringement on Your Website

Most website owners, designers, and developers don’t launch their site with malicious intent, but copyright violations can cause real harm, and not just to rights holders. Copyright infringement can threaten your business or online venture and result in hefty fines and litigation. Thankfully, a little awareness will prevent a lot of trouble.

Many of us learned about plagiarism in the context of a high school writing class, and have mastered the concept of not copying text wholesale and passing it off as our own, but the line gets muddier online, especially in the contexts of social media, blogging, and online shopping. When are you boosting someone’s signal and giving their work a wider audience? When is it straight-up appropriation? What’s fair use, and what types of copyright licensing apply to your situation? Here are five cautionary principles to help you avoid copyright infringement.

Attribution isn’t permission
It’s great practice to tag content such as photos with their creator’s credentials, and even a link to send interested traffic their way. But giving credit to creators doesn’t mean you can skip getting copyright. You have to ask permission, and potentially purchase the rights to use any piece of content on your site. Creators may give permission for you use their content in return for visibility, but you have to confirm this arrangement, unless the creator has published a blanket statement stating their work is free to use.

Ignorance isn’t bliss
Protesting innocence after the fact won’t save you from fines or litigation. Whether you were familiar with copyright laws or not, or even if your web designer, developer or other consultant provided the images, you’re liable as the owner of the web property. Take the time to understand and comply with copyright regulations now to save yourself trouble down the road. And if you’re a designer or developer, take the time to educate your clients and shield them from harm, since a copyright crises will reflect badly on you too.

Alterations aren’t ownership
Taking a piece of content, making some changes to it, and releasing it as your own is still copyright infringement. Don’t reproduce a blog with all points intact but scrambled or rephrased. Don’t whip an image through a few filters, crop and release as your own. Do contact creators to get reuse rights or give credit when you reference their ideas (if researching for a blog or article). For online stores, confirm with suppliers whether they’re giving you permission to use their product descriptions and images or not. And keep in mind that search engines tend to penalize repetitive content, so if it’s been published elsewhere, it’s not doing your SEO any favors.

Obscurity isn’t protection
Having low traffic or a site that’s not connected to a formal business has no bearing on copyright violations. You may think that you can fly under the radar with a personal site or a site that’s still gaining traction. Don’t risk it. You may forget to update your content and be caught, and there are now sharks that search for copyright violations for the express purpose of extorting penalty fees from unsuspecting, unprepared website owners.

Fair use isn’t
The law allows for something called “fair use.” You can use copyrighted content such as photos for a limited set of purposes, such as criticism and teaching. Be extremely cautious with this. It won’t apply in most cases, and even if it does, you have to be able to defend it in court if you’re challenged.

So how do you have a great, engaging, attractive website when there’s all these limitations hemming you in? One option is to set aside a budget for custom-created work or to purchase rights to use existing content from artists, photographers, writers and other creators. Another is to do it all yourself. If you’re working with a limited budget, limited skills, or limited time, there’s another option. You can get stock images to download for free as long as they’re clearly marked for that purpose. Keep careful records that show the copyright and source for each piece of content, but in practice, if the work is marked as free for all uses and free of copyright or free with limitations (such as creator attribution), you can go ahead and use it.

You’re one step ahead already by taking the time to learn about copyright rules. Stay safe and trouble-free by ensuring you have creator permission for every piece of content on your website. Pay creators or stick to copyright-free options, and be sure to keep careful records for your own protection.

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