Whether you want to reprint an article excerpt, post a photo to Instagram, or use a quote in your marketing materials, you need to make sure it is reprinted with permission. Doing so will protect you from the headache of being accused of copyright infringement, which could mean facing legal action.
Common misconceptions about republishing someone else's work
Contrary to what has become common practice, you can't just use any content you come across. It doesn't matter if you found the work in an online forum or scribbled in the back of an old notebook, or even if someone else told you they used the content without asking and had no problem—you still need permission unless the work is in the public domain.
Almost any type of creative content—whether it be photos, articles, graphics, or what have you—is someone else's copyrighted work, which means you can't reproduce or reprint it without the express permission of the owner.
There are quite a few misconceptions around using copyrighted works. The more popular pitfalls include:
- Assuming you don't need permission because you don't see a copyright notice
- Thinking that acknowledging or giving credit to the author is enough
- Believing that using only a small part exempts or protects you from copyright infringement
- Attempting to change the original work to make it your own, unless your adapted work falls under the guidelines of fair use
Unfortunately, this list is much longer and includes many more ways you can find yourself in a legal mess if you do not get written permission to use someone else's work, but these are the most common examples.
Finding the copyright owner to obtain permission
The most obvious method for finding the work's owner is by looking for the copyright notice, usually found at the bottom of a website, in the front pages of a publication, or somewhere else prominent on the work. The notice contains the owner's name, which you can use to find the contact information.
If you can't find the name of the copyright owner or their contact information, you can ask the Copyright Office to conduct a search or do so yourself using the office's free online database. You should note that finding a copyright owner using this method is only available if the author has registered the copyright.
Once you find the copyright owner's contact information, you need to get written permission to use the work.
Understanding reprint rights
Requesting written permission to reprint published material is straightforward. In addition to finding and contacting the copyright owner, you need to identify the specific part of the work you wish to use. Having a clear plan before you seek permission will save time later.
If you fail to plan ahead and identify the content, you may find yourself going back for permission for each new piece of content you want to use, as each photo or section of text needs separate written permission. Do not assume that having the copyright owner sign one reprint permission form gives you carte blanche for any of their work. The copyright holder usually only grants permission to a specific part of their work.
You also shouldn't expect to get exclusive rights. It's possible you're not the only person who wants to use a popular image or an excerpt of a highly relevant text. However, it is probable you will be granted nonexclusive rights, which means others can use the same photo or text. It is also common practice to pay a licensing fee to the owner for the use of their work.
Except for works that are in the public domain or are used under the terms of the fair use doctrine, you must obtain written permission to reuse someone else's work. A few minutes of internet research and using the proper form can protect you from legal trouble later on.