Copyright laws protect original creative works, such as music, art, and literature, that are fixed in some kind of tangible medium. No matter the medium—book, canvas, digital file, etc.—or official publication, copyright laws protect these works from infringement.
Defining copyright infringement
As a creator, you have exclusive rights to distribute, copy, modify, perform, and display your works as you see fit. If anyone else takes your work and does any of these things, then they may be infringing on your copyrights. In order to prove infringement, you must demonstrate substantial similarity between your work and theirs and that they had access to your originals.
Also, as a creator, you likely receive inspiration from others and could unintentionally violate copyright laws. If you're a blogger or own a website where you publish lots of content and images, for example, you could be liable for infringement even if:
- You use a disclaimer when posting copyrighted images and text.
- You resize or otherwise alter the images.
- You found the images on the internet.
- You wrote the words, but they exist in that exact form somewhere else on the internet.
- You didn't know you were infringing.
- You didn't make any money from the text or image.
Types of copyright infringement
In addition to direct copyright infringement, someone may also be guilty of contributory infringement if they knowingly induced or assisted someone else in using your material. Remember Napster? In perhaps the most famous case of its kind, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco held that Napster's music-sharing service constituted contributory infringement by knowingly allowing its users to trade protected music.
Image and text copyright are two common types of infringement. The moment you create an original image, whether it's a selfie or a majestic landscape, you automatically own the rights to that image. With the proliferation of image sharing on the internet, it is common for others to take those images and use them for their own purposes. In too many of those cases, they are infringing on your image copyrights.
Like images, the moment you write a novel, a poem, or a blog article, you have copyright protections. As such, you have the exclusive right to distribute, copy, perform, or otherwise use that text. When it comes to content published on the internet, text copyright infringement can run rampant because it's so easy to just copy and paste the text.
Exceptions to infringement
There are exceptions to copyright infringement laws and things you can do to avoid unauthorized use of someone else's material, including the following:
- Fair use. Copyrighted works, like images and text, may be used on a limited basis if the use satisfies the following factors: purpose, nature of work, amount used, and market effect. Fair use is primarily reserved for works of criticism, comment, reporting, research, and education. For example, you write an article criticizing an article by John Doe. In your article, you place a paragraph of his text so that you can put context to your criticism. This would likely be considered fair use because it is for purposes of criticism, the work is not for profit, it is fact-based, and you used only a small amount of John Doe's words.
- Public domain. Copyrights generally only last for the life of an author, plus 70 years. Once that term is over, the work is placed in the public domain and may be used in any way. Additionally, authors may affirmatively place their work in the public domain so that others may use the work for their own purposes.
- Creative Commons. Through the creative commons license, authors communicate which rights they are reserving for themselves and indicate what rights you have to use the work. Attribution is always required.
- Direct licensing. The best way to avoid infringement is to seek a license to use any protected music, text, art, or image before you use it. When in doubt about using someone else's intellectual property, drop them a note and have a conversation about it before you move forward.