Copyright for Bloggers

For many bloggers, copyright law isn't always something that gets taken into consideration until some form of infringement occurs — either to them or in accusations against them. And this is a major problem.

For publishing and news professionals, copyright law is something that's taught very early on: here is what you can publish and here is what you can't. But in this digital age of Google images, social media photo albums, and lots of high quality content readily available online, bloggers may find themselves in a sticky spot if they don't familiarize themselves with the law.

In this article, we're going to discuss copyright law for bloggers. We'll explain:

  • What is legal and what isn't.
  • Tips for protecting yourself from getting sued as a blogger.
  • Tips for protecting your work as a blogger.

Understanding What's Right and What's Wrong

In order to work within the legal parameters of copyright law, bloggers must first understand the basics. Here is a high-level overview to get you up to speed:

  • "Copyright" is just that: it's the legal right to copy a work.
  • Copyright applies to any work, published or unpublished, at the moment of its creation.
  • Unless you have entered into a work-for-hire situation, you own the copyright to any piece of work you create.
  • Copyright notices and registrations are only necessary if you need to take legal action against infringement.
  • Infringement occurs when someone uses part or all of your work and claims it as their own.

If you want to learn more about copyright law, check out The Ultimate Guide to Copyright. If you're ready to move on, let's discuss how bloggers can determine if the work they've created falls within the parameters of the law.

The Slippery Slope of Fair Use

There is one important "exception" to copyright law that every blogger absolutely need to know about. This is what's known as Fair Use.

Fair Use basically says that a work is inherently copyright protected, but that there are certain circumstances when it's okay for others to make use of that work. These are some of the determining factors bloggers (and others) should use when deciding whether or not they can borrow from someone else's copyrighted work:

1. Profitability

If someone stands to gain anything monetarily from using the work, that will almost always be a violation of copyright law. On the other hand, non-commercial use is not always acceptable either, so it's important to consider other factors as well.

2. Market Effect

While this is technically the fourth point built into Fair Use, it's closely tied into the commercial and nature aspects of works, so it belongs here.

In sum, if a work can substitute and supersede by making use of someone else's original work, this is more than likely going to be a case of infringement. Consider the following:

  • It is highly advisable not to include works or even trademarked names of products or companies if they exist within the same industry or space as you. This can lead to consumer confusion and could potentially help you profit just by referring to the competition.
  • Nominative Fair Use, however, is when trademarked names are used for non-commercial purposes. Typically, the trademarked name or copyrighted work is referenced for the sake of clarifying an argument or story, and not for the purposes of profit.
  • Bloggers need to be careful when writing about well-known public figures or their work. This is known as the right of publicity and can be invoked by those public figures if they feel that your work stands to profit from using their likeness, name, work, or an insinuation that you are endorsed by them.

3. Nature of Use

This criterion for determining the nature of the use of copyrighted material can get a bit murky, so tread lightly and consulting professional legal advise is a good idea. Here are some important points to keep in mind:

  • Creative works are copyright protected at the moment of their inception. Ideas for works are not protected.
  • Facts included in educational, technical, or scientific work are not copyright protected.
  • Segments of unpublished works may be more acceptable to use (pending no other conflict with the rest of the law) than published works.
  • If a work is used as parody, criticism, or commentary, it is typically acceptable under Fair Use. That being said, satire is not acceptable.
  • The case for derivative or transformative works can also be made. In other words, if you've altered the original in some way that it becomes something else, then it may allowed under Fair Use.

4. Amount Used

If you use a larger portion of a work (or the entirety of it), you're more likely looking at a case for infringement than if you were to cite a short snippet or passage to help your argument.

Be Careful

While the basic tenets of Fair Use seem pretty straightforward, it's not always that simple.

Who's to say that your parody work won't be seen as a satire? What if the original artist doesn't approve of you making much more money off the derivation of his work than he did? What if you only quoted a single sentence, but the author still considers any copying of their words infringement? If you're looking for some clear-cut examples of what is legal and what's not, take a look at More on Fair Use and Fair Dealing.

Your Obligation as a Blogger

When it comes to copyright in blogging, it's better to be on the safe side and simply not use other people's work. However, if you should have a legitimate reason for including someone else's words or images within your own, follow these guidelines.

  • If you're going to use someone else's idea (not the actual content, but just the concept), always provide attribution and link to their original work.
  • If you're going to use someone else's facts, always provide attribution and link to their original work.
  • If you're going to quote someone else's words, review the Fair Use parameters first. Also be sure to review their website for a Terms of Use statement or Creative Commons license. If in doubt, reach out to the original author and ask for permission.
  • If you're going to include a video or an audio clip, always embed the file from the original creator's source page so that it links directly back to them. If you use one from YouTube or Vimeo, ensure that the original content does not violate copyright law.
  • If you're going to link to someone else's content, it is okay to provide either a "surface" link to their home page or a "deep" link to a specific page that includes the content. Deep linking was previously disputed, but has been deemed acceptable under Fair Use.
  • If you're going to use content from the government (eg, government documents, legal cases, federal or state statutes), these are all part of the public domain and acceptable to use.
  • If you're curious as to whether a work's copyright has expired and, consequently, entered the public domain, you'll want to verify this either with the U.S. Copyright Office or by referring to a website offering content from the public domain.
  • If you've encountered a Creative Commons license for images or content, note that the work is still copyright protected. What this means then is that the work is eligible for licensing by the author.
  • If you're going to use someone else's photos, but can't find proof that they're in the public domain or available for licensing, don't use them. Purchase the license to a photo from a stock photography website or take your own photos instead.

As a creative professional, you owe it to other creative individuals to treat their work with respect. Consider this the Golden Rule of blogging: what would you do or how would you feel if you discovered that someone ripped off your work — even in the most minor of ways — and profited from it?

Resources

Bloggers are no different than any other writer or content creator, which means they deserve the same amount of protection under the law. Whether you've already found an instance of infringement or you're nervous about it happening in the future, it's important to understand your rights and to take action now to protect your work and yourself.

Here are some resources and tools you should start with:

  • Creative Commons License: for bloggers that want to encourage others to use your work (with proper attribution, of course), you'll want to set up a Creative Commons license. You can set up your license for free on their website.
  • Google Alerts: this may be the most labor-intensive of all the tools, but it will help you easily track down cases of infringement if you don't want to pay for Copyscape's premium services. Just copy and paste a snippet of your content into a Google Alert and let the search engine identify copycats for you.
  • Copyscape: there are two reasons you'll need Copyscape: 1) to quickly search and find cases where your content has been stolen on the Internet, and 2) to ensure that any contributing bloggers (or yourself) has not intentionally or unintentionally stolen anyone else's content before publishing.

WordPress Plugins

WordPress is the most popular blogging platform. These plugins will help you manage your blog. If you use another CMS, you may be able to find similar plugins or extensions.

  • Footer Putter: create a copyright notice and place it in the footer of your blog with the help of this plugin. For a valid notice, you'll need to include three elements: the © (copyright symbol), the year the blog was created, and the name of the copyright owner.
  • Auto Terms of Service and Privacy Policy: if you do not want anyone to use the content found on your website, you can include this information within a Terms of Use page.
  • Yoast SEO: you might not realize it, but your RSS feed is highly susceptible to site scrapers looking to steal your content and rank higher for it than you. Make sure you've updated your site's Reading settings to only include summaries of your blog posts. Then use the Yoast SEO plugin to add a link back to your site in the header or footer of your RSS feed.
  • Image Watermark: one of the easiest ways to protect your images is to include a watermark on them. This also happens to be a great way to brand your images, too.

Knowing is Half the Battle

While you may be sure that you haven't violated anyone else's copyright, you might not be so sure about whether or not someone has violated your own. For bloggers that are serious about growing their website, business, and reputation, it's absolutely crucial to understand copyright law.


Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infogragphics related to copyright:

If you really want to understand copyright, we've created a great resource, The Ultimate Guide to Copyright And it really is the ultimate guide; it will tell most of what you need to know. After that, you'll probably need a lawyer.