The internet makes it is really easy to copy and paste a wide variety of content and use it in lots of ways. Since all that content is just sitting there for anyone to see, it’s easy to believe it’s there for anyone to use. But being able to see content is very different than having the right to use that content – or claim it as your own creation.
When you write a blog, article, poem, story or essay, no one else has the right to claim that they wrote it. When you take or draw a picture, no one has the right to make a copy of it to use however they want.
When you create something original, perhaps something you’ve written, or drawn, or photographed, or a video you’ve made, or any kind of art, or other material that you have independently created, you automatically “own” the right to your creation.
This right is called copyright. It means you are the only person who has the right to copy, reuse, sell, or change it, and you are the only person who can give others permission to use your work.
Copyright is a legal term that means the creator of original content (this does not include ideas) has exclusive right to use, and control the use, of what they created. To be original, the content cannot be a copy of someone else’s work, or a slightly altered copy of someone else’s work. You can’t add a mustache to the Mona Lisa or add a heart on a photo, or slightly change the ending of a poem and call it original art. Original content includes pictures, poetry, books, plays, video, music, software, reports, digital media and any form of art.
You don’t have to do anything to get a copyright. The moment original content has been created it automatically has copyright protection that lasts as long as the creator is alive, plus another 70 years.
Copyright protection is in place whether the content is in a hard copy, in a digital format or online. Sometimes you see a copyright mark © on content, but the material is most likely copyrighted even if you don’t see this mark.
Types of content that are not protected by copyright are what known as being in the “Public domain.” This includes:
- Content with expired copyright (most content created before 1923)
- Content produced by the federal government
- Content that has clearly been donated to the public domain
- Excerpts from copyrighted work
There are also some limitations to copyright protection. The Copyright Act allows a concept called “fair use” which allows copyrighted material to be used in the process of creating another author or artist's own work; allows individuals to copy material for their own learning, and for educational purposes. For example, teachers who use materials to teach are able to do so through “fair use.”
To know if copyright content can be used under the “fair use” standard, ask yourself three questions:
- What are you using the content for? If you would in any way profit from the use of the content, it is not covered under fair use.
- What percentage of the work do you intend to use? The more you want to use the less likely it is to be covered under fair use.
- Looking at the content you wish to leverage, is it entirely original? Is it based on someone else's work? Is it a collection of work by a variety of people? The more original content, the less likely it is to be covered under fair use.
If you still aren’t sure how to tell if content is copyright protected, consider these examples:
- I want to use a video I found online – is it copyright protected? Yes, unless it clearly says the video can be used by anyone. Just because someone posted a video online does not mean they’ve given away their copyright. If you want to use the video you have three legal choices: 1) Get permission from the creator (not the website hosting the video). 2) Follow “fair use” guidelines that allow you to use up to 10% of the total item, or three minutes, whichever is less. 3) Link to the video instead of making a copy of it. Any other use of the video is a violation of copyright law.
- I found an illustration or photo online and want to use it in a report – is it copyright protected? Yes, unless it clearly says the picture can be used by anyone or the work was created before 1923. If you want to use the image you have three legal choices: 1) Get permission from the creator (not the website hosting the image). 2) Follow “fair use” guidelines that allow you to use up to 5 images by the same artist or photographer, or no more than 15 images or 10% of a collection, whichever is less. 3) Link to the illustration or photo instead of making a copy of it. Any other use of the video is a violation of copyright law.
- I want to copy a picture this kid took of himself and posted on his social networking site. I don’t like him and want to alter it to embarrass him – is it copyright protected? Yes it is. Not only could this be classified as cyberbullying; you could also get into big trouble for copyright violation. The boy, his parents, and possibly your school may choose to take action against you.
- I love this new song, and found a place where I can download it for free - is it copyright protected? Yes, unless it clearly says the song can be used by anyone. If you want to use the song you have three legal choices: 1) Buy the song or get permission from the creator 2) Follow “fair use” guidelines that allow you to use up to 30 seconds of the music or lyrics. 3) Link to the song on a legitimate website instead of making a copy of it. Any other use of the video is a violation of copyright law.
- There are websites that let me share files with other people. I can find movies, videos, music and more on these sites and get all the content free. Can I use this content without breaking copyright law? If the content you are sharing is content YOU created, or content the person you are connecting to has created, or is in the public domain (free for anyone to use) then this can be a great way to share if you take security precautions to protect your computer from malware or from having other information on your computer exposed.
It is illegal to share the content if it is owned by someone else (like a film studio, band, or artist). Even if you bought the movie or song, you only bought the rights to use it yourself; you did not buy the right to sell, give or share it with others.
While not all content is copyrighted, you should consider any content found online or offline to be protected by copyright and respect that it not yours to do with as you want.