Does your website violate copyright law?

Just because web content is easily accessible doesn't mean it's free. Much of the material on the internet is copyrighted and if you're using articles or photos that belong to someone else on your site, you may be breaking the law.

by Heleigh Bostwick
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

If you run a website or a blog, you already know that good written content and photographs are always in demand. But sometimes they are hard to find. That's why when you do stumble across a fantastic photo or some great copy on another website, you may be tempted to use it on your own site or blog. But before you use those articles or photos on your website, you should be aware that they may be protected by copyright law.

In other words, just because something is out there in cyberspace doesn't mean you can use it on your website. But it is possible to find images and written content with Creative Commons or other "open content" licenses. Open content licenses allow anyone to use the content for free, typically as long as some basic stipulations are met.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines to follow when you're looking for content—free or otherwise—to publish on your website or blog, including how to make sure you have permission to publish it without violating copyright law.

1. Assume the material is protected by copyright

Unless it's clearly stated that the material is free for any use, you should assume the material is protected by copyright.

2. Request permission

The best course of action is to email the owner of the website where you found the content. If the site owner is also the content owner, you can request permission to use the material. If the site owner does not own the content rights, he or she can direct you to the content owner. Make sure any permission you get is in writing. Keep the paperwork or email as a record in case of a legal dispute.

Some websites explicitly state that the content is free for use without permission or notification. In those cases, you don't need to request permission, but do make sure you follow any other publishing conditions listed, such as attribution or link specifications.

3. Pay the fees

While there's plenty of free content and photographs out there, sometimes the free stuff just won't do. You may need something very specific such as song lyrics, a poem, or even an article or photograph for a specific topic.

If that content belongs to a professional photographer, artist, or writer who makes a living from his or her work, then there are probably content licensing fees involved. The fees may vary depending on how you plan to use the material and whether or not you'll be gaining profit as a result of using it.

4. Be prepared to remove the material in case of complaints

Even if you received permission, paid the fees, and attributed the material as requested, conditions are often subject to change. If for some reason the original owner wants the material removed, do it. If you feel the content owner is violating the terms of your license by asking you to remove it, you can negotiate recovery of your licensing fee later. To avoid potential liability, it's best to remove the material immediately, even if you don't think you're violating the content agreement.

5. Use clearinghouses that specialize in providing written content for free use

If you need free content, try article directories and clearinghouses specializing in free and low-cost written content. Writers, website publishers, entrepreneurs, and the like write and post articles on the clearinghouse website for others to use free of charge. The payoff for them is in free publicity and links back to their sites. Most clearinghouses have basic publishing guidelines requiring that the author's bio and website link be posted with the content, but always read the terms and conditions of a clearinghouse or directory before you post anything from it.

6. Use royalty-free photographs, but read the fine print

Royalty-free photographs can be used for no cost, but may have stipulations attached. Read the terms and conditions of the site you're using to make sure you're not in violation of the licensing terms.

There are often royalty-free photos available under Creative Commons licenses on photo-sharing sites like Flickr. Just be sure you read and understand the uses allowed by each type of license. Often, the photographer will ask that you contact him or her to request permission and explain how you intend to use the image. He or she may also specify how the photo should be attributed. Even if it's not required, it's a good idea to request permission and post the photographer's name and link along with the image.

7. Write it or photograph it yourself

Website publishers and bloggers can avoid the issue of requesting permission to publish altogether by writing their own content and taking their own pictures. You don't have to be a professional writer or photographer to create effective content. After all, you know the message you want to communicate better than anyone else.

Keep articles short, to the point, and grammatically correct. Photographs should be clear and of appropriate size. And if you photograph a person or personal property, be sure to request permission first.

The bottom line is that while you may be tempted to "borrow" some great content from another website and post it on your own site, you shouldn't—doing so may be a copyright violation and could cause legal woes down the road.

In addition to respecting the rights of others, don't forget to protect yourself. Not every website owner is as scrupulous as you are. If you've spent time and/or money creating content for your website, a copyright can help protect your work.

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Heleigh Bostwick

About the Author

Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick has been writing for LegalZoom since 2006, touching on topics as diverse as estate planning and kids, c… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.