Copyright in the U.S. can seem confusing, particularly when it comes to the World Wide Web. All that information, all those graphics, and videos, and podcasts; all those websites and blogs – an unlimited (well almost) amount of information in words, pictures, sounds and probably, if we only knew, in sensations. What can you use?
Then there is the notion that information wants to be free. Dating back to Steward Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, in the late 1960s or in 1984, depending on the source, the idea became a rallying cry among netizens and eventually filtered into public consciousness.
Unfortunately that morphed into the erroneous idea that whatever was published on the internet was free to use by anyone anytime. It’s not true!
Copyrights protect intellectual property
Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of copyright:
Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution, usually for a limited time… Typically, the duration of copyright is the author’s life plus 50 to 100 years (that is, copyright typically expires 50 to 100 years after the author dies, depending on the jurisdiction).
“Original work” has a complex definition, but boils down to anything you or other person might write, take a picture of, paint, design, etc. You own it and you have the right to benefit from that ownership. So does every other producer of original work.
Don’t use it unless you have permission
In practical application that means don’t use a picture, for example, you find on the web unless you have specific permission to use it. The same thing applies to writing, including poetry, art, etc.
How you get permission
In essence you get permission by asking, which, in most cases, isn’t very practical.
You use only things that are licensed by the Creative Commons. The Creative Commons is a quasi-legal alternative to copyright law in the United States. They offer creators a way to allow others to use their work AND to specify the conditions under which that work can be used.
For example, almost every photo or illustration has a little circular symbol in the lower right hand corner. If you point to it you’ll discover who the owner is or at least their screen name, and the nature of the license, which is almost always Creative Commons 2.0.
The article, Free Photos For Your Site!, tells you how you can find and use royalty-free photos.
Royalty-free photos are actually pretty easy to find. New sites, like Pixbay come online pretty often. Pixbay is unusual because it doesn’t want any sort of credit for the photos that you can download from there.
You can always google for royalty-free photos and royalty-free images to find more images than you can shake the proverbial stick at.
Public domain is another term you may run into. When copyrights expire the work goes into the public domain which means you can freely use it. Any of the pictures, for example, you find in Wikipedia are free to use unless otherwise stated. Most of the pictures and other works by our government are free to use. That may also include state governments – but check for your state.
In the United States you don’t have to file for copyright protection to be protected.
It comes down to this: If you don’t know you have permission to copy something from the web to use on your website, don’t. If you do, you’re likely to be contacted by the owner and asked to remove it. Yes, it’s pretty easy for folks to find out if their words, pictures, graphics, music, etc. has been used where it shouldn’t. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
If you got specific questions about copyright, ask them there in comments.