How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Here's how to avoid accidentally stepping on the rights of another's creative work.

by Mary Juetten
updated September 19, 2020 · 4 min read

Copyright is a well-known type of intellectual property (IP) protection represented by the © symbol. Watch any film, and the copyright infringement warning will appear, threatening jail time and fines. Copyright extends beyond video to songs, pictures, books, blogs, podcasts, paintings, and even software. For those who are both consumers and business owners, it’s important to know how to avoid copyright infringement.

Woman sculpting pottery

How Do You Get U.S. Copyright?

Once a work is expressed in a tangible medium, which is paper, electronic, recording or anything that can be seen, read or heard, you actually have copyright protection. Technically the © is not required on the work, but it’s a good idea to use the © symbol or to sign paintings.

Protecting your works with a registered copyright is a simple process relative to other forms of intellectual property like patents or trademarks. More information on copyright registration is available on the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) website.

Remember that any IP registration in the U.S. will only protect you in the U.S.

Copyright does not have to be registered with the USCO unless you wish to bring legal action when someone else infringes on your work. Also, if you wish to give others the right to use your work but you are not sure about the different types of licenses, the Creative Commons organization has several license options.

What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright laws are designed to protect the creator of original works, which are creative expressions from others using and profiting their work, without permission. The idea is that the author or creator owns the rights to the work and can decide if and how others use his or her creation.

For example, music copyright would exist for songwriters on their lyrics. When songwriters allow artists to record their words, there would be an agreement outlining how the right to record is granted, thus avoiding copyright infringement.

If another artist decided to record the same song without permission, the songwriter would be able to bring legal action for copyright infringement against the artist. If you believe that the copyright infringement definition sounds like stealing, you would be correct.

Other examples of copyright infringement include:

  • Downloading movies and music without proper payment for use
  • Recording movies in a theater
  • Using others’ photographs for a blog without permission
  • Copying software code without giving proper credit
  • Creating videos with unlicensed music clips
  • Copying books, blogs or podcasts without permission
  • Anything where you are copying someone else’s original work without an agreement

Tips for Avoiding Copyright Infringement

The following are good practices to use to make sure you're not inadvertently stealing another person's work.

  • Use caution if it's not your original work. If you did not create it, the work is not yours to use freely, even if there is no copyright symbol. If you were to pass an unlocked bicycle on the street, you would not take it—that is obviously stealing. The same applies for a photograph on the Internet. Look for the license or permissions before you use anything that isn’t yours. Video hosting companies such as YouTube use software to detect music copyright infringement before allowing uploads. Slideshare allows users to report copyright infringement. Artists and author can subscribe to online services that monitor and report plagiarism. However, there are many sites with free-to-use music and photos.
  • Read usage rules. Many creators do wish to share their works either for a fee or for proper attribution. The rules for use or terms are often in the form of a license. It’s important to review and read the licensing terms to avoid issues. For example, we once licensed IP cartoons for our office walls. Based on the license, we could not use those pictures online or we would have received a fine.
  • Understand what open source means. While open source code has reduced the cost of software development, it can be a landmine to use if you do not read the license for rules regarding commercial use. It is not as open as one might think: some licenses prevent reselling of the code. 
  • Don't believe what you hear. Do not believe anyone who tells you that you can take a three or five second music clip without permission; it’s not true. Also, the myth that big companies do not care is just that: a myth. Software has automated the infringement reporting process, and no matter the size of the company, the business will act upon any instances of infringement.

Look for Fair Use

Although ignorance is not a defense, there are some exceptions to the copyright infringement laws. There is an exception called “fair use,” which is often associated with education. The concept is that if you are using a photo or an article for educational or non-commercial purposes, then you may be exempt from infringement.

Overall, it’s important to understand the copyright laws or rights for any original creations to avoid copyright infringement. Being diverted by fines or legal action can take up valuable time and resources. The steps to avoiding copyright infringement are quite simple: identify and protect original works, and educate family and/or employees about copyright infringement.

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Mary Juetten

About the Author

Mary Juetten

Mary Juetten, founder and CEO of Traklight, has dedicated her 25-year plus career to helping businesses achieve and prot… Read more