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Who owns Internet content?

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.

Copyright

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:

  1. Content with expired copyright (most content created before 1923)
  2. Content produced by the federal government
  3. Content that has clearly been donated to the public domain
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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.