That’s because it is illegal to use copyrighted materials without permission. Anyone who does so runs the risk of being sued for copyright infringement, not a nice prospect.
Why? Copyright law gives the owner “the legal right to be the only one to reproduce, publish, and sell a book, musical recording, etc., for a certain period of time” (Merriam-Webster).
According to research by Outsell, a market research firm cited in the Cision white paper The Professional Communicator’s Guide to Copyright Compliance and Fair Use, 48 percent of executives believe it is okay to share content as long “as it’s not used for commercial purposes.” When it comes to paid content, digital or print, “45 percent believe it’s fine to share the information.”
Unfortunately, that is not always the case and, in extreme cases, people risk being sued. To complicate matters, copyright law is constantly changing, which makes it all the more important to be up-to-date on the law.
To make sure you “stay legal,” here are some important things to understand.
First, different people can write on the same subject because copyright protects “original expression.” I can discuss the white paper because I am writing an original post. (If I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will tell me!) But I can’t copy and redistribute a significant part of the white paper without a license or approval from Cision, which owns the copyright.
Not everything is covered by copyright. “Anything the federal government publishes is immediately in the public domain.” (After all, we paid for it in the first place.)
And “anything published in the United States before 1923 is public domain.” This is why we can legally use advertisements from the early 1900s, for example. (Where would the Trader Joe’s flyers be without them?)
However, content published after 1977 “has a copyright for the term of the author’s life, plus 70 years.” That’s a long time.
One of the nuances of copyright law is the concept of fair use, which allows copyrighted material to be used for a “limited and transformative purpose.” Determining fair use can be tricky, although I believe educational uses are often considered “fair use.”
Cision advises that, “if what you’re using is something that the owner traditionally sells or licenses, it’s probably not fair use.” The company suggests asking the question: “Will using this source cause commercial harm to the copyright owner?” If so, you may be depriving the owner of financial gain.
5 Best Practices for Copyright Compliance
Fortunately complying with copyright law can be relatively simple. Here are five best practices:
- Attribution: Give credit where credit is due. Helpful resources for attribution include Maria Popova’s “Curator’s Code” and Creative Commons.
- Audit: Check content annually to see if works are “still under copyright or have entered the public domain.” Check licenses and permissions to see what has expired. Make sure your contracts with content developers spell out who has which rights, and when and how those rights expire.
- Education: Provide resources and training so your colleagues will be knowledgeable about copyright issues.
- Monitor: Know what your colleagues are publishing and whether it’s copyrighted.
- Stay informed: Keep up to date. Copyright laws may change regularly.
These are just some highlights of the Cision white paper, which is well worth reading.