There’s a lot of moments I enjoy while I’m creating a client’s website. That first meeting, when they tell me all about their business and I can see the passion they have for what they do. When the CSS is done, and the site looks remarkably similar to the original mock-up. And, of course, when the site finally launches.
There are moments I don’t enjoy, though. One of those usually happens like this:
- Client (showing me a digital photo):
- “Hey, I want to use this on the website.”
- “Great! That looks perfect. Where was this taken?”
- “I don’t know, I found it on the Internet.”
It’s a really sad moment, because the client has just shown how enthusiastic she is about the website, and I have to burst her bubble and tell her we can’t use that, because we don’t have permission. Unfortunately, this happens a lot, and it’s not really surprising. Copyright law has changed a lot in our lifetime, so there’s a lot of outdated information about it still being passed around. Here are some of the myths I hear a lot that affect businesses and their websites:
“To copyright something, mail it to yourself and don’t open it.” — This is not necessary for copyright. According to U.S. law, the moment you create something, no matter what you do with it, you have a copyright. But if you’re concerned someone might try to claim they created the work first, go ahead and send it to yourself — it’s a cheap, easy way to record when you created something.
Update: Johnathan Lyons wrote in with some thoughts on this:
[this] is actually a common myth as well. Even an unopened certified letter can be easily steamed open and its contents replaced (or so the defense will claim), so the “mailed it to myself” proof of copyright is ineffective and somewhat counter productive.
The best way to do it, is gather all of the work you want to protect and file it with the US Patent, trademark and Copyright office as your “Collected Works” for a single filing fee. I believe the charge is about $35.
I hadn’t thought about it that way, but he’s right—there’s no way that envelope is going to stand up in court, so it’s probably a waste of time.
“If it’s on the Internet, it’s not copyrighted.” — Actually, almost the opposite is true. With the exception of those things old enough to be in the public domain, or specifically released by their creators into the public domain, everything online is copyrighted.
So where can you go to find images you can use? When you’re looking for clip art or stock photography, it’s best to skip Google and go straight to a royalty-free image website. We use iStockPhoto a lot—the quality and variety is good, and the prices are relatively inexpensive. You can also use search engines that specifically find works released under a Creative Commons (CC) license. Artists use Creative Commons to indicate they are ok with certain uses of their works. Always be sure your use is compatible with the work’s CC license. And if a photograph includes people, keep in mind that a CC license does not excuse you from needing a model release.
“It’s not copyright infringement if you change the original work by at least 10%.” — Wrong, and this one’s easy to test: Go buy Ratatouille on DVD. Then, on your home computer, replace the middle 11 minutes with your own drawings of mice. Release it online, and see which comes first—your Academy Award nomination, or a cease-and-desist from Disney.
It is possible to use an existing work within your own work—it’s called fair use—but there’s no magic percentage that makes it legal. If your work is a parody, or uses a very short piece of an existing work for illustrative purposes, you’re ok. There are other fair use provisions as well, but it’s a pretty gray area, and courts tend to err on the side of the copyright owner.
“Images that come with your computer are ok to use.” — Applications like Microsoft Office come with a lot of clip art, and you might think you could use the images for anything. There are restrictions, however. Often, those restrictions prohibit commercial and/or online use. In the case of Office, Microsoft licenses its clip art from multiple vendors, so different images can have different use restrictions.
Your software should have an End User License Agreement (EULA) within it (or on the vendor’s website) that will explain any use restrictions. Again, it’s usually best to stick with royalty-free or Creative Commons material.
- “You can’t take photos of somebody else’s house without their permission.” — While you certainly can’t go inside someone else’s house and take pictures without their permission, you can take photos outside without any problems. Generally, anything visible from the street can be legally photographed.
Copyright is very important in our business, so I do my best to keep up with the current laws. However, I cannot stress enough how much I am not a lawyer. While I do believe this is good advice, it’s best to consult with an attorney that specializes in intellectual property if you have a copyright issue.
Are there copyright concerns you’ve heard and wondered whether or not they were true? Or myths you know aren’t true that I didn’t cover? Send them to me and I’ll compile them for a future post.