At We Do Web Content, we get a lot of questions from website owners about copyright laws and how/when they apply to their web content. Below we’ll go over some of the most common copyright issues that apply to web content which will hopefully help you understand who owns the rights to your web content as well as what constitues plagiarism and other copyright offenses.
It was widely believed that in order for a piece of content to fall under copyright law, it had to include a copyright symbol on the page, most commonly in the familiar form of the C in the circle: ©. That is no longer the case. The United States, along with most of the other major countries follow the Berne copyright convention which states that any content published after March 1, 1989 is automatically copyrighted regardless of whether or not the copyright symbol appears in the text. That means any published content, even if it only appears on a website, blog, or even an email, is protected by law.
If you try to pass off other people’s content as your own, especially for financial gain, they can sue you under copyright law. Likewise, if someone copies a piece of web content you published on your website and re-publishes it on their website without your expressed permission, they are violating your copyright on that web content and you can ask them to take it down or sue them if they do not comply.
The public domain refers to content (books, movies, etc.) that literally belongs to the public, so anyone can freely copy and distribute it without penalty. Content can only find itself in the public domain if:
1. It was published before 1923 (typically not very useful for current web content).
2. The author expressly gave the content to the public domain by writing explicit instructions that literally gives the work to the public domain.
3. It was published and copyrighted before 1989 and the copyright expired (once again, this would only apply to certain works published between 1923 and 1989 and dependent on the publishing date and when the author died).
The right of fair use allows you as an individual to comment, parody, report, and publish content that refers to other people’s content. For example, if you were writing an article on for your website that was commenting on a CNN news story about Coca-Cola, your mention of Coca-Cola and CNN, would be considered fair use as long as you didn’t literally copy and paste the text from the CNN article onto your website or claim to be Coca-Cola.
Fair use also allows for short quotes (always with citations and credit!) from another work to enhance your own as long as your usage does not in any way diminish the commerical value of the copyrighted content. For example, if you were writing a book review and used a short, cited quote from the text, that would normally be fine. If however, you quote the ending scene of the book, you would be ruining the dramatic climax and harming the commercial value of the original content, which might get you sued.
Copyright Violations are Crimes
If you violate the copyright laws on other people’s content you could face criminal charges, or most likely civil charges through a lawsuit. Civil court means a judge or jury looks at the evidence and decides whose story is more credible. Criminal rights like “innocent until proven guilty” do not apply. Remember OJ Simpson? A criminal court found him not guilty of murder but a civil trial still found him responsible for those murders he apparently didn’t commit and ordered him to pay millions of dollars to the victims’ families.
Don’t steal content and you won’t get sued. It’s that simple.
How Copyright Laws Affect Your Website
Copyright laws are intended to help authors control the content they created. This means protecting it against people who want to use it for their own purposes, and allowing the author to decide how, where, and when they publish what they have created. If you have created a piece of content and want to allow someone else to repost it, that’s fine, you just need to give them your written permission.
If you want to publish something that has been written by someone else, all you need to do is get their written permission. If they are not the author they cannot give you permission so getting the OK from a third party still means you are violating copyright laws.
Web Content and Plagiarism
Some of the same principles of copyright law overlap into issues of plagiarism. Unless you have a contract with a writer that proves they are willing to ghost write content for you (meaning writing without getting credit), you cannot publish someone else’s content under your own name, that is stealing. Likewise, if you quote someone in an article, paraphrase a news story, or copy any more than 5 consecutive words from a text without citing the source, you are committing plagiarism.
The best way to protect yourself is to always write ORIGINAL web content for your website and cite all of your sources. Search engines penalize duplicate content anyway, so reposting an article or blog that already appears online will actually hurt your website’s search engine rankings, not help it.
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Alex is a successful entrepreneur, marketer, and president of We Do Web Content, an Inc. 5000 business. His firm devises content and marketing strategies and produces online content for law firms, medical professionals, and small businesses nationwide.