Copyright and You

James McDonough, Membership DevelopmentJames McDonough blog size

Our lives are awash in media content and information. Paper-based records and information resources are migrating to internet databases, clouds, and other web-based platforms. Smart phones, apps, and tablets make it easy and fast to find and share content with co-workers, customers, and whole communities. Such ease and freedom may lull users into thinking that accessible content is free to use in any way they choose.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Copyright law still exists and intellectual property rights are vigorously enforced. With the click of a mouse, a scanned article is sent to thousands of customers or employees. A clever YouTube video is streamed for a business presentation. Both have copyright protection, and using them invites risk and financial consequences.

Consider this scenario…
To dress up a flyer to market your business, you browse the web and find a picture with a banner declaring it “FREE!” You download the picture, paste it into the flyer, and distribute to thousands of homes in your area. Is this OK? It may surprise you to learn that this likely violates copyright. “But it was FREE!” you say. True, however, if in fine print the picture states it is free for “personal use only,” then your commercial use was prohibited. Commercial use of copyrighted material requires advance approval and usually payment of a fee. Violating copyright exposes you to legal action by content owner. “But that is so unlikely! I am a small business and no one will pay attention to me!” Your business may be a small fish in a big pond, but the Internet and social media make it hard to hide. Predicting what will “go viral” or how information may be used is impossible. Once it is on the web, it has a life of its own.

You should know that virtually ALL materials in ALL media are protected by copyright, including:

  • Print: books, magazines, periodicals, newsletters
  • Film: DVD, streaming, televised, videotape, etc.
  • YouTube, TED Talks, and corporate websites
  • Music: CD, tape, streaming, iTunes, MP3, radio, etc.
  • Clip art found online, even if it says it is “free”
  • Online content: articles, blogs, papers, photos, tweets, screen shots, etc.
  • Art, photographs, and still images from video

These materials are not protected by copyright:

  • Government documents
  • Materials with expired copyright:
  • Certain materials released to the public domain (different than “publicly available”)
  • Purchased materials that grant specific user rights
  • URLs
  • Logos (but they may protected by trademark law)

Train your staff to respect copyright laws. These user-friendly resources can help:

  • The U.S. Copyright Office
  • The Copyright Clearance Center

The MSEC Library has numerous resources to help you, and the know-how to use them lawfully. Contact me at 303.223.5330 or email for help.