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Copy + Paste = Copyright Infringement

Let’s get the moral of the post first:  Don’t copy and paste from other people’s websites or materials to use on your website or materials.  Just because it is on the internet doesn’t mean it is free to use.

Copyright protects the expression of an idea.  That includes photos, writings, drawings, music and videos.  In other words, all those things that make a website great.  Copyright exists from the moment the work is created and ownership belongs to the person who created it.  That person may then sell or license its rights to others.  That means that the same entity that owns the website might be the owner of the photos and videos or they may have paid someone the right to use the photo and video.  Whether or not they are willing to share the photo, they may not have the ability to do so.  What it definitely means is that other people can’t simply “borrow” or take a photo from a website to use on their own without obtaining permission to do so.  If you do that, you are likely committing copyright infringement.

There are exceptions to that general statement such as federal government writings, fair use, and open source.  However, unless you are certain that you fall under these exceptions, it is better to assume that the website owner had to pay to get that photo (either a photo agency or a photographer).  By taking it, you are not doing the same thing.  The photograph owner is not getting paid for his or her work and creativity, and you are infringing on the owner’s copyrights.  This is true even if you think the photographer doesn’t usually get paid.  It is his or her right to make that decision.  That means that even if it is on their Facebook or Instagram page, it is not fair game.  

There is also a very good chance the photo came from a stock photo agency.  If you use the photo, it may not be the website owner who contacts you but the photo agency.  Hello demand letter from Getty Images!  You will then get the opportunity to pay for the photo or go to court to defend your use.

So what do you do?  If you like something, first see if the owner is pre-emptively giving you permission to use it in certain ways.  It might say specifically that anyone can use it for any reason, although this is rare. Or it might say it is licensed through a Creative Commons or similar license.  If so, make sure you follow the terms of that license.  If it doesn’t say, you can contact the owner of the website and find out if they own the material and if so, are they willing to give you permission to use it.  Or just go to the stock photo agency from the start.  iStock and Shutterstock have thousands of photos at varying terms and conditions, but there are other agencies as well.  Just be sure you understand what terms and conditions you are agreeing to follow and then follow them.  Finally, you can create your own materials and content, and then you are the owner.  And you can hope people ask your permission before infringing your copyright!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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