Image Source: opensource.com
If you’re not creating content, you don’t exist on the internet. Tweets, images, blog posts, comments, your Facebook posts – these are all content. Marketers know that when done correctly, content marketing can be a valuable marketing channel. As I wrote previously:
“Content marketing” refers to creating information (content) that has value to others. The creator of the content ultimately wants to sell a product or service to prospective buyers who benefit from the content, but the goal of content marketing is rarely to sell directly. Instead, the goal of content marketing is to encourage people to read and perhaps engage with the content, and to begin developing a relationship with the person or entity that created that content.
There are many terrific guides about content marketing, including this one from Kissmetrics. But before you rush to share another image or write your next blog post, consider this: content marketing can have many serious legal consequences. If done improperly, marketers can violate copyright law and expose themselves, their employers, and their clients to substantial legal risk, money damages and embarrassment.
I created this guide to help marketers understand the basics of copyright law. I know a bit about the subject: I received my law degree 21 years ago. Before founding crowdSPRING, I was a trial attorney focusing on complex commercial and intellectual property litigation.
If you have a question that isn’t answered below, please leave a comment and I’ll consider revising the guide to include your question (and an answer).
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a form of legal protection provided to those who create original works. Under the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform and publicly display the work. Any or all of these rights can be licensed, sold or donated to another party. You do not need to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office for it to be automatically protected by copyright law (registration does have benefits – see “What can you do if someone else is using your content?” Q&A below).
Let’s take a look at these rights in more detail.
The copyright owner has the right to reproduction. This gives the copyright owner control over who can or cannot reproduce their work. If someone copied this guide and pasted it on their own site without my permission, that would violate my copyright.
The copyright owner has the right to derivation. This gives the copyright owner control over who can or cannot make derivative works. If you take a screenshot of part of an image, or translate this post into another language and publish it without permission,that would violate my copyright.
The copyright owner has the right to distribution. This gives the copyright owner control over who can or cannot share their work, including sale, import/export, and commercial trade. If you share this guide as part of an eBook, for example, without permission,that would violate my copyright.
The copyright owner has the right to public display. This gives the copyright owner control over who can or cannot post their works publicly, including online. If you share someone else’s work without permission in public, including online, that would be a copyright violation.
The copyright owner has the right to sell, transfer, or license their rights. This gives the copyright owner the right to legally appoint someone else as the copyright holder or to grant someone else permission to use the work.
Copyright laws around the world can differ in significant ways. Most countries are signatories to various international treaties and agreements governing copyright protection, such as the Berne Convention. Under the Berne Convention, if your work is protected by copyright in your own country, then your work is protected by copyright in every other country that signed the Berne Copyright Convention.
What does Copyright protect?
Copyright protects works such as image, writing, software code, photographs, poetry, movies, music, video games, videos, plays, paintings, sheet music, recorded music performances, novels, sculptures, photographs, choreography, and architectural designs.
To be protected by copyright, a work must be original and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means that the work must exist in physical form. A tangible medium includes paper (even a napkin or cardboard will do) and digital storage.
The work must also be the result of at least some creative effort by the author. For example, simply listing people’s phone numbers in a phone book’s white pages isn’t sufficiently creative (and as you’ll read below, you can’t protect facts).
Does Copyright protect ideas?
No. Copyright doesn’t protect an idea, system or process. You would need to obtain patent protection for those.
For example, if your small business is creating software programs, you would generally be unable to protect under copyright law the algorithms, methods, systems, ideas or functions of software. Your code, however, is protected – nobody can sell or distribute your code without your permission. Allowing people to copyright ideas would thwart the purpose of copyright law (to encourage people to create new work).
Copyright also does not protect facts (regardless of how long it took to uncover such facts). For example, anyone is free to use information included in a book about the discovery of America or about how a television works, if they express that information using their own words.
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